A Mississippi judge who ruled in favor of Richard "Dickie" Scruggs in a dispute over legal fees was told by a friend that siding with the prominent lawyer could mean consideration for the federal bench, prosecutors allege in court papers unsealed this week.
Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter has denied accepting any bribes and defended his ruling in favor of Scruggs in the dispute with other lawyers over fees from asbestos litigation.
However, during a closed-door proceeding in federal court last week, a prosecutor said Scruggs dispatched intermediaries to tell DeLaughter that "if he ruled in his favor, he would pass his name along for consideration regarding the federal judgeship."
Former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, a friend of the judge, later "passed the information along" to DeLaughter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dawson told a U.S. district judge in Oxford, Miss., according to a transcript.
"The government would further show that, in fact, DeLaughter's name was submitted for consideration for a federal judgeship, and DeLaughter was so notified," Dawson added.
Scruggs is a brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose duties included recommending nominees for federal judgeships.
Dawson was outlining charges against attorney Joseph Langston, who pleaded guilty Jan. 7 to conspiring with Scruggs and others to illegally influence DeLaughter. Scruggs and DeLaughter aren't charged with wrongdoing in the case.
Scruggs has pleaded not guilty to trying to bribe another Mississippi judge in a separate dispute over $26.5 million in attorneys' fees. John Keker, an attorney for Scruggs, has denied that his client tried to influence DeLaughter.
Court papers unsealed Monday accuse Langston, Peters and former state Auditor Steven Patterson of splitting $3 million that Scruggs saved "as a result of rulings in favor of Scruggs by DeLaughter resulting in a settlement of the case."
In December 2005, Scruggs hired Langston and attorney Timothy Balducci to represent him in the asbestos-fees case, which was assigned to DeLaughter. Langston later hired Peters and paid him $1 million.
In at least one instance, according to Dawson, DeLaughter e-mailed to Peters a rough draft of a planned opinion.
"And Langston and Balducci and Patterson would be able to see it before any (final version) was filed," Dawson added.
Balducci and Patterson have pleaded guilty to trying to bribe Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey and are cooperating with investigators in their case against Scruggs.
Hiram Eastland Jr., a lawyer for Patterson, wouldn't comment on the prosecutor's allegations, but said his client is "fully cooperating" with investigators.
Peters didn't immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Lott spoke to DeLaughter and other potential candidates about a vacancy in the federal court system, but the senator supported Halil "Sul" Ozerden, who was sworn in as a federal judge in Mississippi in August, according to Lott's former chief of staff, Brett Boyles.
DeLaughter did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment Thursday. But in an interview last week with The Associated Press, DeLaughter challenged anyone who doubted his judicial integrity to read his ruling in the case.
"I have not taken any bribes of any sort. Have not issued any rulings in exchange for money or anything else," DeLaughter said. "If one were to go back and look at my very lengthy and detailed ruling, I think it would be very evident ... they are on a solid legal basis and would stand any scrutiny."
DeLaughter, a former assistant district attorney, prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in the early 1990s for the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medger Evers.
Scruggs became a multimillionaire by suing asbestos and tobacco companies in the early 1990s. He set his sights on insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina, suing on behalf of homeowners. His case against tobacco companies was portrayed in the 1999 movie "The Insider."
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