May 10, 2010 Rotogram

TURNING AROUND THE STATE’S SCHOOLS

Julie Jordan of the Mississippi School Board Association will explain “Turnaround Schools,” a cooperative project with Mississippi State University.

NEXT WEEK

Dr. William Dodson, former superintendent and author of If I Had Only Known: A True Story, will discuss the 1997 shooting at Pearl High School.

LAST WEEK

Invocation and Pledge:   Sammy Slaughter

Attendance: There were 108 members (38 exempt, 2 honorary) present and 82 (12 exempt, 10 honorary) absent.

Guests and visitors: Member guests were Betty Brown and Ann Chiles of Frank Chiles; Happy and Babs Deas of David VanLandingham; Charlie Winfield of Steve Taylor; Dan Moreland of Tommy Tomlinson; Henry and Leah Pitre, Ed Black, and Lynda Forbus of Jack Forbus; Graham Wells of Martha Wells; Jennifer Rush of John Rush; Keith Winfield of Ernie George; Rocky Katz of Larry Mullins; and, Tommy Prince of Roy Ruby. Guests of the Club were Paul Sims, Starkville Daily News, and RYE students Francesca Scaravelli and Kasper Eriksen.

Makeups: Larry Mullins, Stu Vance, Martha Wells and Charlie Guest all made up at the Rotary District Conference. Frank Childs made up at West Point.

Rotary offspring: President Martha announced that Rotarians Joe and Sarah Fratesi welcomed Caleb. son number two, week-before-last.

Choctaw County Tornado Relief: The Club will make a donation to the Red Cross relief effort for victims of the Choctaw County tornado. Checks should be made to the Starkville Rotary Foundation with a note for the relief effort.

ROTARY INTERNATIONAL HONOR

The Rotary International Service Above Self Award was bestowed on Past-District Governor Stu Vance at the District 6820 conference. Assistant District Governor Larry Mullins explained that this is Rotary’s highest individual honor. Only 150 of the awards are granted worldwide each year for exemplary humanitarian service. Stu has been deeply involved in the worldwide polio eradication effort. The Club will have a more formal recognition later.

WHY?

Why would a billionaire lawyer risk his fortune, livelihood and influence with a relatively small bribe?
Tom Dawson and Alan Lange, co-authors of Kings of Tort, explored that question with us last week.
Their book chronicles the downfall of prominent Mississippi attorneys Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and Paul Minor. The case hit the headlines internationally, making its way all the way to Russia’s Pravda.
Lange, the sergeant at arms of the Jackson Rotary Club, operates Kinetic Staffing, a regional legal recruiting and staffing firm. Dawson retired last year as First Assistant U.S. Attorney in Mississippi’s Northern District.
Scruggs made his fortune through litigation against asbestos and tobacco firms in the 1990s. He and a number of other Mississippi lawyers went to prison in 2008 after attempting to bribe Calhoun City Circuit Judge Henry Lackey. Dawson was the prosecuting attorney.
Observing state politics through the blog YallPolitics.com, Lange bills himself as a businessman reacting to political corruption.
Citing Scruggs’ 2002 “magic jurisdiction” comment, Lange said, “The worst thing a lawyer can say about his or her profession is that it doesn’t matter what the law is or what the evidence is, that the deal is pretty much rigged.”
However, both authors see the silver lining in the affair in that the system worked.
Scruggs, through his intermediary Tim Balducci, attempted to fix a case covering a dispute between five law firms over attorney’s fees in Lackey’s jurisdiction.
Operation Benchmark, a Federal investigation, developed after Lackey reported the proffered bribe to the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2007.
Judge Lackey, who was recognized with a Rotary District Service Above Self award in 2008, is known for rock-solid ethics clothed in a stereotypical country lawyer demeanor.
Dawson captured the judge’s character when he recounted their meeting to set up Lackey’s undercover role in the affair.
The judge, in his mid-70s already had heart trouble, so the U.S. attorney did not want to endanger his life. Lackey’s response was, “Don’t mind the mule; just load the wagon.”
Little did either man know that when the first $10,000 transaction was slipped across his desk that Lackey’s implanted defibrillator would kick in and save his life. Dawson said it is a measure of the man that he hid that fact for two weeks so as not to derail the investigation.
Lange described their book as “hyper-factual” with more than 200 citations in a 30 page bibliography. Much of its narrative framework developed fromYallPolitics.com blog posts.
“If we could make this stuff up, Tom and I would really have a future in the book business,” said Lange.
The authors contacted everybody who is included in the book to ensure clear participation. Dickie and Zach Scruggs, Paul Minor, Jim Hood and Mike Moore declined in writing.
“It’s not over by a longshot,” said Lange. “The principals have publicity experts working on the narrative for their ‘image resuscitation tour.’”
“No matter what else is written,” said Dawson. “I wanted a historical record.”
“The first 19 chapters is what happened,” said the retired U.S. attorney. “Chapter 20 takes a cut at ‘Why?’”
Dawson said that over time he has modified his view of what would motivate Scruggs and others to take the action they did.
“We’ve all heard Lord Acton’s famous quote that ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’” he said. “That’s good as far as it goes; but, there’s another axiom that the corrupt are attracted to power.”
“They may have started with a noble cause in the asbestos cases, but because of the money, power, political connections, hubris it all made a toxic stew.” He pondered, “Did that change them, or were they corrupt from day one?”
In closing, Dawson emphasized that the system righted itself and that only a small portion of lawyers are corrupt.

THE MAGIC JURISDICTION

“The ‘magic jurisdiction’ is where the judiciary is elected with verdict money. The trial lawyers have established relationships with judges who are elected . . . . They have large populations of voters who are in on the on the deal. . . . It’s almost impossible to get a fair trial. . . . These cases are not won in the courtroom. They are won on the back roads, long before the case goes to trial. . . . It doesn’t matter what evidence or the law is.”  —Dickie Scruggs, quoted by Alan Lange, co-author, Kings of Tort

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