(CN) - The brother-in-law of former Sen. Trett Lott who pleaded guilty to bribing a judge cannot challenge his conviction under the newly limited fraud scope, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Richard "Dickie" Scruggs had made a fortune representing plaintiffs in asbestos and tobacco litigation when co-counsel Robert Wilson sued him over sharing attorneys' fees.
Robert "Bobby" DeLaughter, the judge who presided over this dispute in Hinds County Mississippi, apparently had his eyes on an Article III judgeship, and Scruggs, as brother-in-law to then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott could make that happen.
Scruggs put the wheels in motion with a message to DeLaughter in 2006, saying he would make such a recommendation to the congressman in exchange for help winning the case.
DeLaughter accepted the offer: he granted Scruggs a crucial trial continuance, reviewed yet-to-be-filed motions, advised how he would rule and suggested which arguments needed more work.
The rulings were so favorable to Scruggs that his attorneys actually worried whether they would survive on appeal, and Scruggs settled the case to avoid further scrutiny.
DeLaughter apparently believed that his federal nomination was on the way because Lott had called DeLaughter at the behest of his brother-in-law.
The conspiracy was uncovered when the government began an investigation of an unrelated judicial bribery scheme. After pleading guilty to one count of aiding and abetting honest-services mail fraud, Scruggs was sentenced in 2008 to seven years in prison, to be served concurrently with a five-year sentence for bribing a separate judge in another fee dispute.
DeLaughter, a former prosecutor who put white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith behind bars for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was sentenced to 18 months for obstruction of justice.
About two years later, the Supreme Court limited the scope of the "honest services" mail fraud theory in Skilling v. United States, which disallows convictions based solely on concealment of payments.
Scruggs said this precedent means he is not guilty of a crime since he never admitted to bribing DeLaughter, but a federal judge concluded that the claim was procedurally defaulted since Scruggs pleaded guilty.
A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit affirmed Friday.
"Scruggs pleaded guilty," Judge Jacques Wiener Jr. wrote for the panel. "A voluntary and unconditional guilty plea waives all non-jurisdictional defects. Not surprisingly, then, most of the issues raised by Scruggs in this appeal are attempts to evade that waiver."
The criminal information against Scruggs never used the word "bribe," but this did not strip the court of jurisdiction, according to the ruling.
"All that Scruggs can really say is that, as a factual matter, the allegations of the information no longer suffice to allege honest-services fraud in light of Skilling," Wiener wrote. "This is simply not a jurisdictional argument, and none of the cases that might appear to hold otherwise withstand scrutiny."
The court similarly rejected claims that Scruggs is actually innocent of honest-services fraud.
"Scruggs argues on appeal that there is no proof of a causal connection between his actions and DeLaughter's, insisting that the record reveals only parallel favorable action without the causative pro in the quid pro quo," Wiener wrote. "According to Scruggs, he already had secret ex parte access before there were any vacancies in Mississippi federal courts and before Senator Lott called DeLaughter, so nothing Scruggs did to assist DeLaughter's ambitions could have caused DeLaughter to take any actions in his favor.
"This view is too narrow. ... A bribe that takes the form of a promise to assist later - here, with a future district court vacancy - is still a bribe."
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