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Scruggs still carries 'cross of guilt'

Dickie Scruggs fought insurance companies after 2005's Hurricane Katrina with all the considerable resources he could muster.

He filed lawsuits for hundreds of policyholders, accused insurers of racketeering and counseled two insurance adjusters who agreed to become whistleblowers against State Farm Fire & Casualty Co.

His Scruggs Katrina Group reached settlements with insurers that amounted to $200 million. The racketeering case also was settled.

And then Scruggs was gone.

The FBI raided his office in November 2007. In 2008, he went to prison for trying to bribe one judge and influence another in personal disputes over legal fees.

He's out now, and he still feels bad about leaving his insurance cases unfinished.

The beginning

Scruggs, whose own home in Pascagoula was heavily damaged in Katrina, filed lawsuits against insurance companies for friends, neighbors and his brother-in-law, then-Sen. Trent Lott.

"It was a huge struggle and an urgent struggle," Scruggs said. "The litigation against the insurers following Katrina had more of a personal effect on me than any other case I'd been involved in." That included the multimillion-dollar tobacco settlement he and a team of attorneys secured in the late 1990s for Mississippi and 30 other states.

"To all of a sudden be indicted. It came out of the blue. I mean, I didn't have any idea any of it was percolating. It was sudden and devastating, for me and my family."

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The Scruggs Katrina Group of attorneys eventually disbanded. The whistleblowers, Cori and Kerri Rigsby of Ocean Springs, found new lawyers.

Scruggs was parachuted into a foreign land when the federal government shipped him to prison in Kentucky.

"I was in such a mental state in the first six or eight months I was in prison, I tried not to think about things like the litigation," he said.

"I had such a sense of guilt about being taken off the playing field and leaving people holding the bag. There were a lot of people that were depending on me that I obviously let down by getting in trouble."

A pained look settled on his face.

"The cross of guilt was extremely depressing and demoralizing," he said. "I still have it if I think about it."

Life today

The Rigsby case went to trial in spring 2013, after Scruggs had finished his first sentence and was home on a $2 million bond while appealing the second conviction. For the first time since departing the battlefield, he followed an insurance case. He was pleased when a jury found State Farm had defrauded policyholders Thomas and Pamela McIntosh, a test case in the whistleblower lawsuit.

Rigsby attorneys Augie Matteis and Maison Heidelberg also won permission to dig into other policyholder claims and see whether the fraud was widespread.

State Farm, which has denied any wrongdoing, has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Scruggs returned to prison in late April 2013, having lost his appeal four days after the Rigsby verdict.

His landing was soft, he said, when he returned from prison to Oxford in March 2014. He said his wife, Diane, is responsible.

She "kept her head up, was the anchor for the rest of our family and came to see me every single week -- wherever I was, every single week -- in prison."

The letters helped, too. Many included quotes of inspiration and encouragement.

One quote stuck in his mind, from legendary UCLA coach John Woodin: "Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out."

So that's what he's tried to do. He tutored inmates for their GEDs in prison. After he was released, he started a statewide literacy program called Second Chance Mississippi. He covers its administrative costs and is making the rounds to raise money, something new for the former attorney accustomed to writing checks rather than asking for them.

He said he does not really miss being an attorney, or the stress of all those legal battles.

"It's still a struggle," said Scruggs, who will soon celebrate his 70th birthday. "Believe me, there are plenty of challenges out there. Inertia is almost as difficult as somebody who is actively opposing you."

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