Assistant DA says Lackey’s testimony was true
Hood denies Scruggs threatened to fund opponent
By Alyssa SchnuggStaff Writer
What would a good legal thriller be without some “he-said-she-said” to throw into the mix of intrigue, corruption and accusations?
But in the infamous judicial bribery case involving Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and four others, there appears to be a case of “he-said-he-said-he-said.”
On Tuesday, Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey testified during a civil lawsuit hearing against Scruggs that Assistant District Attorney Lon Stallings told him in March 2007 that Attorney General Jim Hood told him that Scruggs, through former Attorney General Mike Moore, had promised him if he did not go along with the settlement in a legal dispute between State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. and Scruggs over the insurer’s handling of homeowner’s claims, that Scruggs and Moore would find a candidate who would run against him.
Hood has denied Moore ever made such a threat to him.
“No, Mike Moore never approached me with such a message,” Hood said Wednesday in an e-mail to The EAGLE. “Judge Lackey was right to turn the case over to the federal government which has the wiretap authority that the state lacks.”
Lackey’s testimony Tuesday came during a civil hearing for a lawsuit filed by a Jackson law firm, Jones, Funerburg, Sessums, Peterson and Lee. The lawsuit alleged Scruggs and the others conspired to “freeze out” the Jones firm and offered it a “ridiculously low figure” for its work on Katrina cases. The firm claims Scruggs is withholding money the firm is owed for working on Hurricane Katrina insurance-related litigation. It’s the same case in which Scruggs pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Lackey for a favorable ruling.
Scruggs, his son, Zach Scruggs, law partner Sidney Backstrom, former New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci and former state auditor Steven Patterson were indicted in November and have pleaded guilty to charges related to the federal bribery investigation. They are awaiting sentencing.
Circuit Court Judge William Coleman ruled in favor of the Jones’ firm Wednesday. A hearing is set Nov. 12 to decide how much Jones will be paid by the members of the former Scruggs Katrina Group.
Moore said that recently published reports claiming that Stallings had text messaged him to assure Moore that Lackey’s comments about his threatening Hood’s position were untrue. Moore said the text message he received earlier this week came from his associate, Lee Martin.
Moore also denied threatening Hood in any way.
“Never happened,” he said this morning. “First off, I wouldn’t threaten someone to run against (Hood). I’m the one who got him to run to begin with. He’s been my friend a long time. When his second campaign came around, we helped run his campaign … If anyone is trying to do anything negative against (Hood), they’re gonna be on the other side of me. I’m on Jim’s side.”
Moore, who is representing Zach Scruggs in the bribery case, said he worked as an unpaid “facilitator between all the parties” in the legal battles that followed Hurricane Katrina, which hit the coast in August 2005. Moore said he did advise Hood, but never pressured him to do anything on behalf on Scruggs.
“As far as what Judge Lackey said, the information is wrong,” Moore said. “Maybe he’s confused. Maybe someone else is doing that stuff. Maybe Steven Patterson. I prosecuted and removed (Patterson) from office. He doesn’t like me much. Whatever those boys are saying, they aren’t talking to me about it.”
Patterson was removed as state auditor after admitting to filing papers to avoid paying car taxes.
For his part, Stallings — upset about media reports claiming he made the story up and that he sent a text message to Moore on Tuesday during the hearing saying he never made that comment to Lackey — told The EAGLE Wednesday he was “really hurt” reading the statements in the newspapers.
“I grew up in Calhoun City and have known Lackey since I was a child,” Stallings said. “The last thing I’d want people in Calhoun to think is that I would have done that or said that about Judge Lackey. He told the truth. A few details got confused, but the thrust of his testimony was correct.”
Stallings said Lackey had come to him in March, shortly after being approached by Balducci who appeared to be trying to corruptly influencing Lackey by asking him to side with Scruggs in the Jones v. Scruggs lawsuit and offered Lackey a position in his law firm after Lackey retired.
“(Lackey) was upset about it and asked me why someone would think he’d do something like that,” Stallings said. “He suspected Scruggs was behind it … I told him we had an investigator that we’ve used in voter fraud cases that would wire up and send in there.”
Stallings said Lackey didn’t trust the Attorney General’s office to investigate the case since Hood, Moore and Scruggs were friend.
“I told Judge Lackey that I didn’t think Jim (Hood) was as close to Mike (Moore) anymore,” Stallings said. “I told him that to my recollection what (Hood) told me, and that was Mike (Moore) had told him that Dickie threatened to get him an opponent to run against him if he didn’t settle the case.”
Lackey later decided to go the U.S. Attorney’s Office and report the incident.
Friendships may end
Stallings said Hood called him Wednesday, after hearing about Lackey’s testimony.
“I think Jim remembers it differently,” Stallings said. “I consider Judge Lackey, Mike and Jim friends. All of this could end some friendships.”
Hood, a Democrat and former district attorney, was elected to his second term last year. Scruggs was one of his biggest campaign contributors.
Moore, a popular Democrat who served four terms as attorney general before going back to private practice, had a close relationship with Hood and Scruggs.
Scruggs, the brother-in-law of former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, was one of the most prominent lawyers in the country. Moore, acting as attorney general in the 1990s, hand-picked Scruggs to lead the legal assault on tobacco companies that resulted in multi-billion dollar payout.
This is not the first time allegations have surfaced that Scruggs sent messengers to tell Hood how to handle cases against State Farm.
An FBI report made public in February said Scruggs paid $500,000 to two men now entangled in the bribery investigation — Balducci and Patterson — to persuade Hood not to file criminal charges against State Farm.
Scruggs, who was suing State Farm on behalf of storm victims, was afraid that the insurer “was not going to settle the civil cases” if the attorney general’s office filed criminal charges, according to the FBI report based on Balducci’s statements.
Hood has acknowledged meeting with Patterson and Balducci around Christmas 2006, but said he was not influenced by them.
Meanwhile, the sign on the Scruggs Law Firm door on the Square has been taken down. A receptionist answering the phone said the firm was “apparently not closed” since someone was still answering the phone. However the receptionist referred any questions to John Keker in California who is representing Scruggs in the criminal procedure. Keker decline to comment about the status of the law firm.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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