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Another favorable Scruggs profile in NYT

[Originally posted Sat. 3/17 11:30 a.m., bumped for Monday readers]

Because the moistly admiring profile that it ran a year and a half ago ($) just wasn't enough, the New York Times was back yesterday with another moistly admiring profile of trial lawyer zillionaire Richard ("Dickie") Scruggs, once again letting Scruggs's contentions pass without challenge on a series of controversial Katrina-coverage questions and for good measure quoting a common-man description of the Pascagoula potentate, by a casino security guard, as "good people. ... If he tells you something, it�s gospel."

Although Scruggs has been making a lot of news in recent days, the Times piece is curiously selective about what it chooses to mention. For example, the profile does not consider it newsworthy that Scruggs is due in court next week to answer contempt charges relating to his handling of much-trumpeted adjustment documents which are said to show that State Farm over-scrutinized claims of wind damage. Those who read a WSJ editorial on Thursday were aware that this coming Wednesday, March 21, federal judge William M. Acker Jr., in Alabama has scheduled a hearing on whether Scruggs should be held in contempt for having arranged with his pal, Mississippi AG Jim Hood, to shuffle some of the papers into Hood's possession in order to evade an injunction requiring their return. The W$J editorial fills in some of the legal and ethical background about the story, which

revolves around E.A. Renfroe, a company with offices in Alabama that was hired by State Farm to send insurance adjusters to evaluate Katrina claims. Two sisters, Cori Rigsby Moran and Kerri Rigsby, had worked as adjusters for Renfroe since the late 1990s. Both had signed employment agreements and codes of conduct promising to protect the confidential information of companies for which Renfroe worked.

Yet around February of 2006, the Rigsby sisters seemed to be thinking of something beyond contracts. According to court documents, they met with Mr. Scruggs (a friend of their mother's) and gave him State Farm documents they'd stolen from work. Mr. Scruggs at this point was working on his civil litigation against insurers, and the Rigsbys started clandestinely working with him. In June of 2006, the two copied 15,000 more pages of claims information and, on Mr. Scruggs's advice, gave a copy first to Mr. Hood and then to Mr. Scruggs. They also went on national television to crow about their theft, and to accuse State Farm of misconduct....

...neither woman went to Renfroe management with their concerns before they stole the papers. Instead, they both took jobs with the Scruggs Katrina Group -- a coalition of trial lawyers suing over the hurricane -- and are now each earning $150,000 a year as "consultants" for advising on insurance litigation.

Nor does the Times mention Scruggs's appearance last week as a witness in the high-profile retrial of his former close associate, leading Mississippi attorney Paul Minor, on charges of judicial bribery. The U.S. Department of Justice offered Scruggs immunity for his testimony; Scruggs chose not to take the proffer of immunity and testified anyway, but the whole episode, with its details of how Scruggs arranged for loans and repayments for friendly judges, might have introduced a jarring note into all the talk about "good people" and taking his word as gospel and so forth.

Times insurance-beat reporter Joseph Treaster does quote a few Scruggs critics, who it seems "sniff" their objections over matters of "decorum". Little or no mention is made of the ethical questions and allegations of orchestrating meritless legal claims that have dogged the Scruggs law practice over its tobacco, asbestos, HMO, and hospital claims (and on and on).

Even assuming Katrina litigation were to be the article's only focus, Friday's beat-sweetener has curious omissions. For example, in a passing mention of "complaints from rival lawyers about potential fees of more than $46 million for Mr. Scruggs and the pick-up team of two dozen lawyers in his Scruggs Katrina Group", you'd think a Times reporter might pursue the question of how well that $46 million figure squares with Scruggs's talk a year and a half ago about how "he did not see the insurance battle as a personal gold mine. He said he was prepared to take as little as 1 percent of any settlement or jury award -- far less than the typical contingency fee of one-third or more". It's hardly as if reporter Treaster could have missed the earlier profile where those lines appeared, since it carried his co-byline. Or is the danger that readers will suspect that they -- and the newspaper's own editors -- are being played for credulous fools by Mr. Scruggs's public relations machine?

P.S. I see Peter Lattman at the WSJ law blog preceded me in taking note of the contrast between the NYT's and WSJ's Scruggses.



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.