|January 16, 2011
A review of Curtis Wilkie's "The Fall of the House of Zeus,"
(Crown, 2010), 400 pages, $25.99
|Money is the milk and whiskey of politics, at once nurture and stimulant in the gravy-spattered table of democracy. This is true in the poor states as well as the big ones -- maybe more so.
When the fabled plaintiff's lawyer Richard Scruggs pleaded guilty in 2008 to a bribery scheme involving a backcountry Mississippi judge, it was more than the standard true crime story. Scruggs had operated at the pinnacle of Mississippi law and politics and earned a fortune pioneering asbestos and tobacco litigation.
His take-no-prisoners style matched the audacity of California's William Lerach, who reaped huge settlements from Fortune 500 companies in cases of shareholder fraud, an epic tale chronicled in "Circle of Greed" by Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon, Politics Daily's executive editor.
Renowned Southern journalist Curtis Wilkie saw in Dickie Scruggs' fall from grace a story that personifies not just the mercenary aspect of modern American politics, but its hubris. Wilkie's new book, "The Fall of the House of Zeus," draws out an absorbing political fable from events surrounding a $40,000 bribe for which Scruggs went to prison. How could a man who took in $1.4 billion from tobacco companies lose his career and home life for 40 grand? Scruggs, in Wilkie's telling, comes off not so much as greedy as imperious. A major financial presence in Democratic Party politics, Scruggs assumed he could trump the system because he always had.
Wilkie spent 26 years as a respected Boston Globe reporter before heading back to his home state to a chair in the journalism department at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi. Scruggs had been a classmate in the 1960s. Keen to the jostling for berths at elite fraternities and sororities that assure status for a lifetime, at least in Mississippi, Wilkie had known Scruggs as the boy from a broken family who married a dentist's daughter, scraped hard and made it big. But when Scruggs' world caved in, not even his powerful brother-in-law, Sen. Trent Lott, could help.
Wilkie got access to Scruggs before he entered prison. Because Scruggs had been sued by so many people in disputes over fees or deals spawned from outsized legal profits, Wilkie also benefited from a trail of documents detailing how a clutch of plaintiff lawyers pumped serious money into the politics of the nation's poorest state. Scruggs was also a major financial figure in the national Democratic Party.
The story of all that rolling money, and tales of the bit players with dank palms who roam the subplots, make "The Fall of the House of Zeus" a standout read. Wilkie's subtitle -- The Rise and Ruin of America's Most Powerful Trial Lawyer -- does not identify Scruggs, a smart decision by the Random House hierarchy, since Scruggs is little known beyond legal and political circles.
Wilkie's treatment of Southern politics in this book calls to mind Robert Sherrill's classic "Gothic Politics in the Deep South." Wilkie, however, has little to say on campaign tactics, media buys or even candidates; his focus is the legal culture that produced a money feast for anyone who could get close to it. When they weren't doling out checks to their favored pols, the lawyers were suing one another. To quote a vanity license plate with an Arkansas label: "If you can't run with the big dogs, then stay on the porch." The political dogs are some big in Wilkie's Mississippi.
Most Americans assume politicians are in it for the money. Soft spots form in the body politic for the city councilman who fixes your sidewalk. (I have been waiting eight years, through four council members, on a sunken culvert, but this is New Orleans.) Americans who manage to vote often do so in anger when they sense the money is out of control -- people losing jobs and homes while Wall Street bankers eat large; or, they vote for someone they know personally, or think they do, based on how she or he presents on television. Hi-ya, Christine O'Donnell!
Even in the best of times, before newsrooms were gutted and the press had enough reporters to track campaign money or probe the shadow government of lobbyists, the time investment for investigative reporting was serious and with no payback in popular interest. Jack Abramoff's crash was major stuff inside the Beltway. Many more Americans will awaken to a certain reality of the K Street lobbyist now that Kevin Spacey portrays him in "Casino Jack."
Dickie Scruggs's trouble began in the early 1990s as he prospered on asbestosis cases. The state auditor, a porcine man with wavy hair by the name of Steve Patterson, was preparing to file an opinion with the courts that Scruggs had disguised a bribe to another official as a campaign contribution. In desperation, Scruggs turned to a former client he had rescued, one P.L. Blake, a legendary backroom force in Mississippi politics. Years earlier, Blake had been charged with bribing Mississippi Bank officials with $500,000 "in order to get $21 million in loans," writes Wilkie. Scruggs and Blake's Tennessee lawyer, Fred Thompson, later a U.S. senator, managed "to whittle down the felony to a misdemeanor."
After disclosing his problem to Blake, Scruggs followed the call to his one-time client's baronial mansion in the Delta, and there beheld -- Steve Patterson.
"This is chicken s---t stuff," Blake tells Patterson. "I want you to back off."
Patterson, who obviously owed P.L. Blake, agreeably backed off. The three men went out to dinner so Scruggs and Patterson, yesterday's enemies, would become tomorrow's friends. Soon thereafter, Scruggs put Blake on a $25,000-a-month retainer, apparently as an all-around troubleshooter. Blake's duties for $300,000 a year, as a non-lawyer, are not otherwise explained. Scruggs obviously had secrets to keep from Wilkie, despite the cooperation. Wilkie never got an interview with Blake. But the clerk at Garden District Bookstore where I bought my copy of "The Fall of the House of Zeus" advised that word on the street had come down from the Mississippi Delta: P.L. Blake likes the book. Perhaps he imagines Jack Nicholson as himself on screen.
Steve Patterson lost his re-election bid in an unrelated development, but found new life, and work, in a law firm that paid him big despite his absence of a law degree.
A novelist could not make up Steve Patterson.
Nor P.L. Blake. The backroom potentate who dodged prosecutors, amassing a fortune in agribusiness warehousing, had grown rich, in part, from cotton subsidies secured in the federal budget by his mentor, the late Sen. James Eastland. He was the bête noire of the civil rights movement, whose relationship to democracy Robert Sherrill once likened to "an unnatural act with history."
The literary approximation of Patterson and Blake is Flem Snopes, whose rise from dirt farmer to small town baron was among William Faulkner's lasting achievements in the trilogy of mid-20th-century novels: "The Hamlet," "The Town" and "The Mansion." Patterson is vintage Snopes, only his career mobility was in reverse, from the statehouse to a small town courthouse, down to prison, as party to the same scheme that sank Scruggs.
A partner in the firm where Patterson worked, a lawyer named Tim Balducci, approached Judge Henry Lackey, who was poised to retire, in hopes that a lubricant of money would assure a decision to assist the upstart firm that was working on a big case with Scruggs' group.
"As they plotted to build their firm," Wilkie writes, "Patterson and Balducci sometimes sounded like Abbott and Costello imposters, at other times like characters from Mel Brooks's madcap comedy 'The Producers.'"
For example, Patterson, through his Democratic Party contacts, had befriended James Biden (brother of then-Sen. Joe Biden), a powerful Washington lobbyist. Patterson, writes Wilkie, told Jim Biden and his wife, Sara, that he was "99 percent sure" of convincing Martin Luther King III to lend his name to their legal enterprise. "He's a good friend of mine," Patterson explained to the Bidens. "He would be a great benefit to us if we get into mass tort stuff, direct mailing. We'd use him where we need him. This is one of the biggest names in the world. ... This is Gandhi, you know."
Just how much Scruggs knew in advance about the bribe offer from Balducci to the judge is a bit vague, although he did approve the disbursement. Scruggs comes across as a generous guy, who donated widely to good causes, even small people scraping to get by, but as a man walking around with so many deals in his head that a $40,000 check for Tim Balducci's use seemed like small beer.
Judge Lackey alerted federal authorities to Balducci's advance. When Balducci returned to firm up the plans with the judge, the feds had Lackey wired. Wilkie got the transcripts, with metaphors of money in the barnyard.
"I wanna talk to you," Balducci said. "I wanna lay the corn on the ground. What are your plans? What are you thinking you're going to do? How much time you got left in your term?"
"Three years," came the reply. "But with my health situation, my defibrillator and my pacemaker, I don't see me going to the end of the term."
With that, Balducci offers the judge -- on tape -- a job with his firm when he retires in exchange for a ruling favorable to their case.
Before the sword of the indictment falls, Balducci and Patterson, as supporters of Joe Biden's 2008 presidential campaign, funnel a large donation to Fred Thompson, the retired senator lumbering into the GOP primaries, through a third party. Thus do the big dogs hedge their bets.
Wilkie casts a wide net with many secondary figures, and such a parade of names makes it hard at times to keep straight who the various people are. But as the major figures converge in the final pages, where Scruggs and his son, Zach, a member of the firm, agree to plead guilty and confront the reality that both of them will do time -- five years for the father, a year for the son -- the comic episodes and surreal moments of money tentacles reaching everywhere dissolve into a sad twilight of the gods.
Jason Berry is author of "Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church," forthcoming in the spring from Doubleday. www.JasonBerryAuthor.com.
> read more articles by Jason Berry at politics daily.com