Here and Back Again: Dickie Scruggs

It’s been nearly ten years since Richard “Dickie” Scruggs was indicted on judicial bribery charges that ended his law career, sent him to prison and left a community stunned. His return home, along with a renewed passion for serving Mississippi, has given the 70-year-old Gulf Coast native a second chance to change lives through the power of giving back.


The fresh eggs are warm, and so is the young lady proudly displaying them in a basket. “Look at what we gathered,” the second-grader says, beaming with pride as her grandparents and a guest look on.

She’s just emerged from the anointed “KLK” house, a well-manicured chicken coop with a hay-covered floor in the back of Dickie and Diane Scruggs’ Oxford residence. They get seven or eight fresh eggs per day, enough to sometimes give the surplus to friends and neighbors.

“It’s our sorority house,” Dickie says, alluding to the structure’s exterior design and the KLK letters adorning the coop that stand for cluck. “(Diane) built this while I was away.”

I look down at the exposed dirt on the grounds around the hen house and can’t help noticing it is the only spot lacking landscaping at the Scruggs’ Faulkner Woods home, built in 2006 by Oxford’s Grantham Construction. Diane catches the glimpse and addresses the void.

“I’m going to get this finished,” she says, pointing to the grounds around the chicken house, “in case Dickie ever needs to move out here.”

He laughs audibly, and so do I, once the full punch settles in. Diane has just picked up her granddaughter from the carpool line at Oxford Elementary School and soon gets her settled into homework and a snack. Dickie and I sit in the den, and he puts the family dog, Zeus, outside by the pool but doesn’t have the heart to stick with the commitment once Zeus sees us inside, pecking at the door.

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” I tell him, meaning every word.

Dickie opens the door and Zeus, the mixed-breed dog the Scruggs’ adopted from the local shelter a couple of years ago, kneels to my left. The man known by the nickname “Zeus” since his days as a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Ole Miss takes a seat in a recliner to my right.

It’s about 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and Dickie has just returned from speaking in Tupelo where he preached in Presbyterian style about the virtues of getting Mississippi high school dropouts the education to pass an equivalency test and skills training to get a job. A soft afternoon sun streams through the windows, and a Theora Hamblett painting hangs on a wall nearby, catching a ray.

I point to the pool and patio.

“That’s nice,” I say. “Do you spend a lot of time out there?”

“The best is late afternoons in the fall,” Dickie says. “You can sit out there at the end of the day with a drink and a cigar and listen to the Ole Miss band practicing. That’s as good as it gets.”

I’m spending a lot of time with Dickie recently, in the car driving to Jackson, eating lunch at Saint Leo and McEwen’s – all focused on real efforts to try and solve some world problems including substance abuse and the uneducated, unskilled workforce.

We have laughed because he’s still quick with a quip: “I’m paying for lunch,” he says. “Rumors of my wealth are greatly exaggerated … but I can certainly afford lunch.”

And I have seen him cry if you count tears welling in his eyes.

It happened the first time when he asked about my son, William, an Ole Miss graduate who was in the Honors College, Croft Institute, on the track team, and in a fraternity, who died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose.

The second time is at this moment we are sitting in the den. I brag on his granddaughter, son Zach’s youngest child. Then I compliment Zach, now 42, noting his quick intellect and an apparent right spot in life after moving back to Oxford with wife Amy and their three children and taking a job as executive director of Second Chance Mississippi.

“He’s a good father,” Dickie says, turning his head to look at the pool before taking off his glasses and wiping a tear away. “I still feel bad about getting Zach tangled up in everything. He didn’t deserve that.”

But nearly a decade goes by fast in the rearview mirror. The headlines, bad as they were, become potholes in a longer road traveled.

FBI agents raiding the Scruggs’ Oxford law office in late 2007. A Christmas party hosted several weeks later by Dickie and Diane in their new Oxford home with smiling faces and little mention of a new federal judicial bribery charge. Recognition and public admission of Dickie’s addiction to barbiturate pills purchased online in the midst of it all.

The guilty plea. That moment in sentencing when the judge took the prosecutor’s full recommendation and Dick trembled, swaying side to side, to the point of nearly fainting. Lifetime disbarment. Writing a letter to lifelong friend and former Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat to request that the names of both he and his wife come off the university’s band hall building on campus. Zach’s guilty plea to a charge related to the same judicial bribery case, losing his law license and serving six months time.

For Dickie Scruggs, 70, who jokingly describes himself these days as a “disbarred, disgraced former lawyer,” it was all part of a difficult journey that has led to this better place, the one with grandchildren close, fresh eggs from the henhouse, late Friday afternoons listening to the Pride of the South, and trying to make a difference in the world.

“I’m happier today than I have ever been before,” Dickie says. “So it’s hard to complain.”

“He’s a good father,” Dickie says, turning his head to look at the pool before taking off his glasses and wiping a tear away. “I still feel bad about getting Zach tangled up in everything. He didn’t deserve that.”

– Dickie Scruggs

Dickie doesn’t talk much about the details of prison because he doesn’t want anybody feeling sorry for him. But when gently pushed for a better understanding of the incarceration and how he ultimately found his calling from it, he’s willing to take a step back.

One of the longest days, he recalls, was the ride in 2008 to the Ashland, Kentucky federal prison when Diane drove him to begin serving his six-year sentence. Ashland is a primarily low- security prison, appropriate for white-collar crime.

But when they arrived, offcials assigned Dickie to the central prison with bars, gun towers and razor wire instead of the adjacent satellite camp. Male inmates included pedophiles and hardened criminals late in their sentences, missing teeth and covered in tattoos.

“It was like a casting call of ‘The Walking Dead,’” he says.

Dickie was considered a flight risk by federal officials because of his wealth from two ultra-successful cases as a trial lawyer—billion-dollar settlements in asbestos and tobacco—and the fact that he had a home in the Bahamas. So they put him in a more secure prison that white-collar crimes don’t usually necessitate, and he didn’t see it coming.

“That was a long day,” Dickie says. “Felt like it would never end.”

Leaving her husband in prison shook Diane, the culmination of a dizzying year in harsh reality. She returned to Oxford
and stayed tightly tethered to home, grappling with the weight of it all—her husband, one of the best-known trial lawyers in the world doing time in prison for judicial bribery and her son professionally stained by the same case.

“That lasted about a month or a little more,” Dickie says. “She mourned. Then she picked herself up, got involved in Oxford, and got busy with life to keep it all together.”

Active at First Presbyterian Church and other community charities, Diane developed a close and wide circle of friends from across the community. She likes gardening and tending to her fruit trees. And then there are the chickens.

Diane visited Dickie most every weekend, trying to keep his spirits up. Initially, it wasn’t easy. He was imprisoned at a facility with barbed wire fences, and his prison job paid $5 a day for rolling plastic napkins for the cafeteria. He battled depression.

“I lost my sense of purpose,” he says.

The warden got Dickie moved from the barbed wire prison to a more traditional federal facility housing white-collar criminals after the first year. He developed daily habits of watching public television, listening to public radio and reading long books that made incarcerated life more bearable.

He read Margaret Mitchell’s 1,472-page “Gone with the Wind,” a work he says that left a profound impact.

“Like most people, I had seen the movie,” Dickie says. “The book is long, but I read it since all I had was time.

“There a line from Rhett Butler that pretty much says it all: Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”

Among the more coveted jobs to get in prison is teaching. New inmates have to earn a measure of trust and respect from both prison offcials and fellow inmates before it is allowed. Once Dickie got a job as an adult education instructor, his life began to change. Students he taught and mentored graduated, and he saw firsthand the hope it yielded.

“Families came to (high school equivalency certificate) graduations,” Scruggs says. “They whooped and hollered. They saw this as an opportunity, as something to celebrate.”

We’re driving down Interstate 55 in Dickie’s Chevrolet Suburban. He has two hands on the wheel and eyes on the road ahead. I am in the front passenger seat. Zach is in the next row, thumbing through a briefcase full of statistics about Mississippi employment and education.

“Dick, the numbers have improved a little, but they are generally still the same,” Zach says, prepping his father for
an impending speech to the Jackson Rotary Club. “Twelve- thousand high school dropouts a year in Mississippi. Two- thousand end up getting a high school equivalency certificate. Ten thousand don’t.”

Now, more than three years removed from prison, Dickie has traded trips around the country in a personal jet—he sold that soon after the guilty plea—and meetings with influential friends and associates with car rides across the state to tell Rotary Clubs and other civic organizations what Second Chance is all about.

It began in prison once Dickie tutored inmates in preparation for the high school equivalency exam, but the full- fledged concept took years to mature into broader action. Briefly released from prison after five years while his case was on appeal, Scruggs was at home in Oxford watching Mississippi Public Television and heard Hinds Community College Vice President Colleen Hartfield talking about the need for adult basic education and how the state’s community colleges helped provide the service.

“I reached out and told them what I had been doing, and we had a meeting,” Scruggs said. “A good meeting.”

He found shared passion with Hartfield and longtime Hinds

President Dr. Clyde Muse. But when Dickie’s appeal was denied in 2012 he returned to prison for one last year to complete his sentence, putting that conversation on hold.

His last years in prison were served at a federal facility in Montgomery, Alabama, the kind of place one expects white- collar criminals to land. “No bars, no fences,” Scruggs says. “You could walk out if you wanted to. But they would bring you right back and then you would be put where you didn’t want to go (behind bars and fences).”

Jeff Skilling, the former Enron CEO convicted of crimes related to the company’s corruption and disintegration, was a fellow inmate, and he and Scruggs took long walks for an hour or more at a time, discussing everything from family to the social ills of America and how real change happens (Skilling worked at the renowned consultant McKinsey and Co. before Enron).

“The last year wasn’t so bad because I had already done (five),” Dickie says. “I knew one more would go by fast.”

When Dickie was released in 2013, he was afraid of being shunned in Oxford, unwelcome in restaurants and scoffed at by friends and neighbors. He and Diane quietly made charitable donations in the community, but he didn’t want his name associated publicly for fear it would hurt worthy causes.

But he found a “soft landing” in Oxford, he says, largely because Diane had “worked to make a home here while I was away.” Relationships were intact, new ones formed and Diane’s community work and church involvement made Dickie’s return seamless.

“She did this,” he says. “Or it wouldn’t have been so easy.”

At home Scruggs resumed conversations with Muse and Hartfield and eventually launched Second Chance Mississippi, creating a formal relationship with Mississippi’s community colleges system to raise funds and awareness for adult basic education.

The challenge goes something like this: Mississippi has 400,000 adults without a high school diploma. The state also has 40,000 vacant jobs on most any given day. What if Mississippi moved farther, faster in educating adults and getting them into the workplace?

“(Mississippi) may be last in many areas, but our community

colleges are the best in America,” Scruggs says. “A vast resource.”

Zach was hired as Second Chance’s executive director, moving his family back to Oxford in 2016. It was the first time in almost a decade that he and his father had formally worked together in business, but it worked, with eyes on the future rather than the past.

“We have a chance to make a tangible difference,” Zach says.

They recognized that awareness and funds to get more Mississippians an equivalency diploma wasn’t enough. So working with two community colleges in Northeast Mississippi they funded a pilot program that will give participants a six- month education designed to result in both an equivalency diploma and specific jobs skills to match some 40,000 available positions in the state. The cost for each student is about $1,000 and Second Chance wrote a check for the first 100 program participants.

The ambition is specific: Get program graduates a job.

If this works, Zach says, Mississippi’s 15 community colleges will be pipelines to opportunity, creating jobs and education for adults in limbo at a low cost. “We see a path,” Zach says. “But this isn’t about Dick Scruggs writing a check. It will never be successful that way. If it works, support will be needed from across the state to have the most impact.”

The program, Zach says, could put thousands of families across the state “on a different trajectory.”

This message resonates with the full-house audience at the Mississippi Agricultural Center in Jackson for Scruggs’ pitch to Jackson Rotary Club. The crowd is larger than most Mondays, one club member says, and when Dickie nishes, a line forms near the podium some 30 deep, with members and guests waiting to thank him or ask how to get involved.

The two-hour drive back to Oxford is much like the drive down, a fast-paced flurry of conversation that bounces between life, death and the obstacles and opportunities in between.

“I am so sorry about your son,” Zach says.

He tells me his young brother-in-law also died of an accidental drug overdose, and we talk for 45 minutes about what is needed to make a difference, helping young people better understand what’s at stake, and where and how to get help.

Dickie has an idea, several ideas in fact, including one about a national symposium at Ole Miss that delves deep into substance abuse, which could be a long-term difference-maker.

“If we don’t have the answers,” Dickie says, “we certainly have some of the smartest people in the world to help find them.”

He wants his philanthropic efforts to get results, not just another “sugar high from writing a check” for a new program.

“I have written a lot of checks over the years,” he says. “That started after (the asbestos settlement in the 1990s). But now I have learned that I would rather try to make a difference.”

When I tell Dickie I want to write a story about where he and his family are now, nearly 10 years after the scandal that shook them to their core, he laughs and says he is afraid I will get the paparazzi after him.

I remind him that the secret may already be out. When we dine at Oxford restaurants, it feels at times like being at the table with Archie Manning or Robert Khayat, since most everybody knows him and showers him with adoring affection.

He passes musician Charlie Mars on the Square, who gives Dickie an early cut of his new CD, a friends-only gift. Dickie gets a hearty pat on the back from a woman walking by who calls herself an “old coast rat.”

When Khayat walks by, it is clear the long-standing relationship that began when Dickie was a student in his 7th- grade homeroom class in Pascagoula is as strong as ever. Maybe stronger, as time tends to bind.

“Did you get that book I left for you?” Dickie asks Khayat. “Yes, I did,” he says, smiling.
The book’s title: “On Bullshit,” the New York Times best-seller by Harry G. Frankfurt.

I also remind Dickie that I have just seen him deliver another Rotary speech, this time to the Oxford club, and the crowd
was similar to the one in Jackson two weeks before—one of the biggest to attend a meeting in months.

“You are almost up to standing room only,” I say. “They’ll be selling tickets soon.”

He gets the humor, that packing crowds in at Mississippi civic clubs for weekday lunch engagements has little resemblance to the life he once lived as one of the world’s most in influential trial lawyers with a sellable Hollywood storyline and someone with whom national politicians sought favor.

But Dickie says with a smile that it beats rolling plastic napkins for $5 a day. Then, he brings back out his favorite quote from Gone with the Wind.

“Until you’ve lost your reputation,” Dickie says, “you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”

David Magee is the author of a dozen books including The Education of Mr. Mayfield and How Toyota Became #1. He is also president of Oxford Newsmedia LLC., publisher of The Oxford Eagle and Oxford Magazine.