Will rich people from Mississippi (especially lawyers and politicians) dog-ear this book, looking for names of friends, relatives—themselves? Yes—as surely as bees love honey and men love money. “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” wrote Balzac. If he could read The Fall of the House of Zeus by Curtis Wilkie, Balzac might add: “And after every great fortune comes carelessness—or a setup. Or perhaps both.”
This book centers on the true story of Mississippi lawyer Richard F. Scruggs, who got richer than some countries by suing Big Tobacco. The 1997 settlement was for $368 billion to be paid out over twenty-five years. Scruggs’s total take was at least $500 million.
In 2007 prosecutors charged Scruggs with bribing a judge in another case. He is now in prison. The amount of the bribe was $50,000. That Scruggs would need or desire to make such a relatively puny bribe seems, on the surface, implausible. Plus, why would somebody with more money than two Wall Street bankers need to commit a crime?
The facts of that bribe, according to U.S. attorneys and FBI agents, were simple and straightforward. But Curtis Wilkie’s clear and balanced reporting in The Fall of the House of Zeus strongly suggests that the case was far from simple and straightforward—and therein lies the source of the controversy this book will surely reignite. Wilkie says he’s uncovered previously unpublicized and critical information from witnesses.
The story is complicated and tragic. Here’s one complication: The bribe that brought down Scruggs went to a judge who was appealing to an old friend—not to Scruggs—for money to bail himself out of a personal debt. Another complication: Testimony before a grand jury turned out to be—after the fact—inaccurate.
A magic trick of Wilkie’s narrative is to give you the feeling that you personally know many of the main characters. Wilkie conducted more than two hundred interviews over a two-year period, some with confidential sources. I say “main characters” because in many ways—especially when you’re reading dialogue in The Fall of the House of Zeus—the book feels like a novel. But whereas a novelist “makes up” dialogue, much of the dialogue here comes from FBI phone taps and other recording devices. A reader experiences long moments of fascinating, breath-holding action. You become that fly on the wall you long to be when people you admire or people you despise get into (or cause) big trouble. The undisputed accuracy of recorded dialogue will fan embers that will keep this story alive for decades—not only in Mississippi, especially Jackson and Oxford, but anywhere obscene wealth, arrogance, and narrow-mindedness grant us human beings a look into the darkest rooms of our hearts.
Scruggs, according to this book’s publisher, landed “inside the circle of the upper class” after he got rich. Some of the fraternity brothers in that upper class were very nasty bottom-feeders. “The rich” in this book is not an abstraction. You see into very rich people’s literal closets. “The law” is not an abstraction. Judges and lawyers insult each other; FBI and Justice Department officials sometimes seem to put their best feet backward. Judges “vent,” not just from the bench, but also from the witness stand.
My guess is that this book will spawn new stories and blogs—written about attitudes and interests of Dickie Scruggs, P. L. Blake, Judge Henry Lackey, Steve Patterson, Judge Neal Biggers, Tim Balducci, and others. The questions will center not only on matters of legal opinion, but also on examples of pettiness, stupidity, and disappearing acts. Nationally famous names, from Trent Lott and Dick Morris to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, slip in and out of the action.
A lawyer for Scruggs, after Scruggs’s guilty plea, indicated that it would take “mystical” Southern novelists—William Faulkner or Walker Percy—to “understand how these kinds of things happen.” No mystical novelist needed here. Just a damn good journalist.