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Book Reveals Flaws of Players in Bribery Case

File Photo
Mississippi attorney Richard Scruggs (left), seen with lobbyist John Raffaelli, is the focus of a book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” about his trial for attempted bribery of a judge.

For nearly two decades, Mississippi attorney Richard Scruggs, known to his friends as Dickie, was the undisputed king of torts. He was the trial lawyer who took on the asbestos, tobacco and insurance industries, won huge settlements, and made hundreds of millions of dollars. His legal reach extended all over Mississippi and into neighboring states, and his money and influence traveled as far as Washington, D.C.

Today, Scruggs sits in a Kentucky penitentiary, serving a five-year term for attempted bribery of a judge.

Scruggs’ life, career in law and politics, and eventual downfall are chronicled by author Curtis Wilkie in “The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer,” a book that is equal parts biography and legal thriller. Wilkie is a Mississippi native, longtime Boston Globe reporter and former Hill staffer. He worked for former Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) and former Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.) from 1969 to 1971.

“The Fall of the House of Zeus” begins by detailing Scruggs’ rise to prominence. He first won big by suing a shipbuilding company in Pascagoula, Miss., for asbestos poisoning, and he made an even larger splash with the famous litigation against Big Tobacco in the late 1990s. Scruggs’ personal share of that lawsuit was never disclosed, but some estimates say he was paid roughly $800 million on the deal.

After becoming a rich man, Scruggs became involved in the shadowy world of Mississippi politics. Battles between Mississippi’s rich and powerful often played out in races for under-the-radar positions such as state auditor, insurance commissioner and circuit court judge.

The Scruggs story is in no way limited to Mississippi’s borders. Perhaps a dozen prominent national politicians make appearances in the book, mostly in passing but occasionally in more involved roles. That list includes Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and Mississippi GOP Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, Vice President Joseph Biden, former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The national figure that is most involved in Scruggs’ career is former GOP Sen. Trent Lott — an Ole Miss alum, one of Mississippi’s most influential individuals and Scruggs’ brother-in-law.

The sheer number of characters with a connection to Scruggs makes it difficult to keep track of each individual in “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” but the theme is a consistent one: Scruggs was everywhere, pulling strings and working back channels to exert influence on state and national politics and the practice of law in the South. His success seemed to make the prospect of bribing a judge unnecessary.

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