For nearly two decades, Mississippi attorney Richard Scruggs, known to his friends as Dickie, was the undisputed king of torts. He was the trial lawyer who took on the asbestos, tobacco and insurance industries, won huge settlements, and made hundreds of millions of dollars. His legal reach extended all over Mississippi and into neighboring states, and his money and influence traveled as far as Washington, D.C.
Today, Scruggs sits in a Kentucky penitentiary, serving a five-year term for attempted bribery of a judge.
Scruggs’ life, career in law and politics, and eventual downfall are chronicled by author Curtis Wilkie in “The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer,” a book that is equal parts biography and legal thriller. Wilkie is a Mississippi native, longtime Boston Globe reporter and former Hill staffer. He worked for former Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) and former Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.) from 1969 to 1971.
“The Fall of the House of Zeus” begins by detailing Scruggs’ rise to prominence. He first won big by suing a shipbuilding company in Pascagoula, Miss., for asbestos poisoning, and he made an even larger splash with the famous litigation against Big Tobacco in the late 1990s. Scruggs’ personal share of that lawsuit was never disclosed, but some estimates say he was paid roughly $800 million on the deal.
After becoming a rich man, Scruggs became involved in the shadowy world of Mississippi politics. Battles between Mississippi’s rich and powerful often played out in races for under-the-radar positions such as state auditor, insurance commissioner and circuit court judge.
The Scruggs story is in no way limited to Mississippi’s borders. Perhaps a dozen prominent national politicians make appearances in the book, mostly in passing but occasionally in more involved roles. That list includes Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and Mississippi GOP Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, Vice President Joseph Biden, former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The national figure that is most involved in Scruggs’ career is former GOP Sen. Trent Lott — an Ole Miss alum, one of Mississippi’s most influential individuals and Scruggs’ brother-in-law.
The sheer number of characters with a connection to Scruggs makes it difficult to keep track of each individual in “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” but the theme is a consistent one: Scruggs was everywhere, pulling strings and working back channels to exert influence on state and national politics and the practice of law in the South. His success seemed to make the prospect of bribing a judge unnecessary.
By the mid-2000s, Scruggs seemed to have it all — a family, incredible riches, a flourishing law practice and statewide, even national, fame — but his downfall came because of a mix of greed and government overzealousness, and Wilkie has chosen to let the reader decide who is to blame for Scruggs’ current position.
The bribery case that led to Scruggs, his son and five others entering guilty pleas in 2008 began unethically, but perhaps legally — a Scruggs associate, Tim Balducci, went to speak to Judge Henry Lackey at his home to advocate for a favorable ruling in a standing case involving Hurricane Katrina. Lackey, who detested Scruggs, interpreted the meeting as an intent to bribe him, and he contacted the FBI.
From there, the FBI built a case against Scruggs and his associates by using a series of wiretaps, which Wilkie gained access to during the course of his research. Wilkie said, “I got them the old-fashioned way: Someone slipped them to me.”
The case appeared to be a nonstarter on several occasions, but the FBI pushed Lackey to continue trying to build evidence by appearing to request a bribe. Eventually, the judge succeeded, and Balducci handed Lackey an envelope containing $40,000 cash. From there, the dominoes started to fall, and seven people — all lawyers — were eventually sentenced to prison in a situation that they viewed as entrapment. The crimes that the group pleaded guilty to ranged from bribery of a judge, the most serious, to misprision of felony — knowing about a crime and failing to report it, essentially — the least serious.
“I try to let the readers draw their own conclusions without getting on a soapbox, but I think there were certainly flaws on all sides in this story,” Wilkie said. “It is a book with few — if any — heroes.”
Wilkie was uniquely positioned to author this book because of his intimate connections to Mississippi. Wilkie grew up in the state, attended the University of Mississippi, often wrote about the state during his long journalism career and has lived in Mississippi since retiring from the Boston Globe in 2000. Just as relevant, Wilkie had developed personal relationships years earlier with many of the people involved in Scruggs’ downfall.
Wilkie said that of the 34 characters listed in the preface, he knew 18 personally before the case made news. For instance, Wilkie studied at Ole Miss with Lott and Cochran, went to the same high school as the judge who ruled against Scruggs in court, and used to share an office with one of the FBI agents who launched the investigation.
He met Scruggs in 1998 as part of a story for the Boston Globe — one that Wilkie described as “not particularly flattering” — and the two remained friendly afterward.
“The fact that I am a Mississippian, that I knew these people, that I had a track record — I would like to think — as a credible journalist, people trusted me not so much as a favor to me, but to ensure that their side of the story was reflected in the book,” Wilkie said. “That’s why Dick Scruggs eventually agreed to talk to me at length.”
Noticeably, some relevant characters refused to speak to Wilkie on the record, including Lott, who resigned from the Senate in late 2007; Lackey, the FBI’s original informant; and P.L. Blake, a kind of behind-the-scenes power broker in state politics.
Wilkie was in the courtroom the day Scruggs was sentenced, and he said Scruggs nearly fainted as the judge lectured him about his crimes. According to Wilkie, the courtroom was filled with other lawyers who had come to see Scruggs knocked down a peg, in some measure of revenge for what they considered past injustices.
“There’s always going to be a faction of people in Mississippi who hate Scruggs and everything he and trial lawyers stand for, and some of them probably feel the portrait should be tougher than it was,” Wilkie said of his presentation of the Scruggs story. “I tried to put a human dimension on the story, but there’s a body of opinion that considers Scruggs evil incarnate.”