PERRY/Power, greed, hubris
Wednesday, February 19, 2014 12:00 AM
Three judges, six attorneys and a former state auditor went to prison in Mississippi judicial corruption scandals from 2003 to 2009, centering on two of the nation's top trial lawyers: Paul Minor and Dickie Scruggs, both Mississippians. The scandals ended careers, changed political fortunes and generated two exceptional books: "Kings of Tort" by Alan Lange and Tom Dawson, and "The Fall of the House of Zeus" by Curtis Wilkie. Now we can add a third book to the list with the recent release of James R. Crockett's "Power Greed Hubris: Judicial Bribery in Mississippi."
Crockett, professor emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi and adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi, is no newcomer to writing about corruption in Mississippi. In 2003 he released "Operation Pretense: The FBI's Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi" which recounted the investigation that led to the prosecution of fifty-seven county supervisors in the 1980s; four years later he released "Hands in the Till: Embezzlement of Public Monies in Mississippi."
In his preface, Crockett describes how power, greed and hubris led to the downfall: "Minor and Scruggs needed to be able to rationalize their behavior. From all accounts, this was not difficult for either man. They tended to see their causes as right and good and their legal opponents as evil personified. They were on the side of the angels when they pursued clients' claims...It did not hurt that the white knights lined their own pockets in the process of helping their clients and combating evil. Ironically, in his disputes with other lawyers over attorneys' fees, Scruggs perceived himself as a victim of others' greed...Minor and Scruggs underestimated the system's capacity to cleanse itself of criminal behavior no matter who is involved."
In this book, as in his others, Crockett excels at research and providing context for the characters, crimes and conspiracies. The facts and flavor of the stories have been well documented in other books on these matters, but Crockett often provides a straight encyclopedia style report on those involved.
Crockett covers all the usual suspects: Paul Minor; Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield; Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz (who was found not guilty) and his wife Jennifer (who pleaded guilty to evading income tax); Dickie Scruggs, his son Zach; Tim Balducci and Steve Patterson; Joey Langston and Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
He also looks at two of the more shadowy characters involved.
In Chapter 15: "Presley L. 'P.L.' Blake and Edward J. Peters: The Teflon Men," Crockett walks through how each man avoided severe prosecution over the years, sometimes teetering on the line of disaster but always walking away without serving time.
In 1987, Blake was indicted on federal bribery charges. His lawyer, Fred Thompson of Tennessee (actor, senator, presidential candidate) worked with prosecutors for a misdemeanor guilty plea and $1.5 million in restitution from a deal involving $21 million in loans. In his connection to the Scruggs prosecution, Crockett references Wilkie's book which "indicated that Blake was at least aware of the conspiracy to bribe Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter." Blake was under criminal investigation which ended without indictment in 2010.
Crockett details Peters' escapades and federal investigations including a 1975 acquittal of federal extortion charges, 1977 allegations of payoffs to protect prostitution that were never prosecuted after U.S. Senator Jim Eastland complained about the investigation, favorable treatment payoff allegations in the 1980s in which the alleged intermediary's case ended with a deadlocked jury, and numerous cases reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court for improper actions by Peters in the prosecution. In Peters' connection with Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, the U.S. Attorney asserted Peters "was a member of a conspiracy to corruptly influence a sitting State of Mississippi circuit judge." Ultimately, Peters forfeited his law license, resigned from the Mississippi Bar, forfeited $425,000, cooperated with the prosecution and received immunity.
Crockett asks, "What were Paul Minor and Dickie Scruggs thinking?" He also answers that question, "Why would two highly successful and wealthy men perched at the top of their profession get themselves involved in judicial bribery? Both men knew full well the risks associated with their conduct. Without attempting to psychoanalyze Minor and Scruggs, it may be helpful to consider their behavior in terms of what has been called 'the fraud triangle.' Pressure or a strong desire to achieve certain results; an opportunity to help assure that the desired results are achieved by perpetrating fraud; and the ability to rationalize one's actions are the three sides of the triangle. The right combination of pressure, opportunity, and ability to rationalize will result in fraud."
Crockett delves into the pressures, opportunities and rationalizations that propelled two wildly successful trial lawyers into prison. There are lessons of warning and caution for all who read the book, regardless of power, to beware of hubris and greed.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.