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An Attorney's Fall: From Billionaire To Inmate

Trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs made millions from lawsuits targeting the asbestos and tobacco industries. He was part of a network of powerful businessmen and politicians spanning from Oxford, Miss., to Washington, D.C., who traded favors, influence and money.

How that system worked — and how Scruggs wound up in prison for attempted bribery — is the subject of The Fall of the House of Zeus, a book by journalist Curtis Wilkie, who became friends with Scruggs in college.

"The trial lawyers are considered in some circles as champions of the people who have been screwed over by big corporations," Wilkie tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

In Scruggs' case, he made a business out of challenging big business. He made a fortune in winning settlements from the tobacco industry — his fees were estimated at $1.6 billion. The money fed an appetite for both power and luxury.

"He was something of a playboy," Wilkie says of Scruggs. "He had several yachts, fully crewed, in locations around the world. He had two jet airplanes — his own hangar — here in Oxford, with two crews to fly him, or his friends."

Scruggs had ties to Mississippi's leading Democrats and Republicans. His brother-in-law is former Sen. Trent Lott, who was then at the head of a powerful political and business network in the state.

At an early point in Scruggs' career, the group helped him out of a jam. And, Wilkie says, it changed his life.

"He told me that he considered it 'the dark side of the Force.' "

Asked what that might mean, Wilkie says, "If you wanted things accomplished in Mississippi, he had to do business with them. And he did."

But Scruggs was making enemies all along the way, Wilkie says, even among his lawyer colleagues. Several lawsuits were filed against him, which lingered on for years.

"Eventually, the criminal case that brought him down involved an attempt to win a favorable decision in one of these lawsuits," he says

And that's where things get a bit murky. But Wilkie says that essentially, an attorney who hoped to impress Scruggs told him he had influence with the judge who was presiding over a case against Scruggs.

But the improper overtures from the lawyer, Tim Balducci, only angered the judge — who was already not a fan of Scruggs, Wilkie says.

The judge reported the incident, and six months of wiretaps ensued. Eventually, FBI agents and a federal prosecutor told the judge to ask for money — $40,000. Balducci paid him, and then sought reimbursement from Scruggs. When Scruggs agreed, he was implicated in bribery.

Right now, Scruggs is serving a sentence in an Ashland, Ky., prison. But he has held on to his money — and continues to make more. As Wilkie says, Scruggs' tobacco settlement fee arrangements will continue to pay him $20 million a year until the year 2025.

Asked if anything has changed in the way Mississippi works, Wilkie says, "I don't think so. It's still pretty much business as usual."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff