January 10, 2008
Can't Tell the Attorneys in the Scruggs Case Without a Scorecard
The prosecution of famed plaintiffs tort attorney Dickie Scruggs and three other defendants accused of bribing a Mississippi state court judge in a case involving a fee dispute has seen a whirlwind of motions by attorneys seeking to withdraw or appear in the case, and Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers has called a halt to the movement for the moment. According to the docket sheet in the case, on January 8, attorneys for Dickie from The Langston Law Firm moved to withdraw. That firm was searched on the day the indictment was returned, and at one time former co-defendant and now cooperating witness Tim Balducci worked there. Whether the law firm or any of its partners are a target of a grand jury investigation remains to be seen, but Balducci boasted on tape about knowing where "bodies" were buried involving Dickie. The Langston Law Firm could be one of the cemeteries.
Next came a withdrawal motion on January 9 from Anthony Farese, the only counsel of record for co-defendant Zach Scruggs, Dickie's son who works for his father's firm. According to Farese's motion, Zach terminated him and plans to hire new counsel. At about the same time, Dickie moved to add Kenneth Coghlan as a new member of his defense team. Here's where Judge Biggers threw up a "Stop" sign in an order issued at the end of the day (available below). First, the Judge noted that there was no motion by a new attorney to appear for Zach, so he would be left without counsel. Judge Biggers expressed concern about waiting for a new lawyer to appear who then may ask for a postponement of the trial, so for the moment Farese's motion to withdraw is denied. It will likely be granted once the new lawyer shows up, but don't be surprised to see Judge Biggers hold that attorney's feet to the fire to avoid a postponement of the trial. The Judge also denied the motion to have Coghlan appear as counsel for Dickie because of a potential conflict of interest. Coghlan previously represented co-defendant Steven Patterson, who was a partner of Balducci. As the Judge explained in the order, if Patterson or Dickie were to break ranks and cooperate with the government, Coghlan could well have a conflict because of confidential information learned from one client that could not be used to the benefit of the other. While Dickie will, in all likelihood, be happy to waive a conflict, the same may not be true of Patterson, who terminated Coghlan in favor of a new attorney. And even in the event both waive the conflict, the district court has fairly wide discretion to disqualify an attorney with a potential conflict. Given that Dickie already has other lawyers, including well-known white collar defense lawyer John Keker, Judge Biggers may not feel constrained to accept a waiver from the defendants.
Why all these attorney machinations at the same time? I would certainly expect Dickie and Zach Scruggs to coordinate their defenses, so Zach's new attorney will likely come with his father's seal of approval. The withdrawal of The Langston Law Firm could indicate an expansion of the case into other areas, and the lawyers would have to withdraw because of the conflict with their client if they were targets of an investigation involving Dickie, or there is the possibility that the lawyers could be witnesses against their client, which would knock them off the case. Prosecutors may well seek a separate indictment if there is evidence of bribes in other cases, so the problems for Dickie may not be over any time soon. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has an excellent summary of the attorney shuffling (here). (ph)
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