VOL. 126 | NO. 43 | Thursday, March 3, 2011
Former U.S. Attorney Greenlee Discusses Big Cases
By Bill Dries
The former U.S. Attorney for North Mississippi during the prosecution of North Mississippi attorney Dickie Scruggs for bribing a judge says there were some fears the powerful attorney or his friends might destroy the government’s case by talking some key witnesses out of cooperating.
But Jim Greenlee said his office let them know if that happened, the government would come down hard on them.
“You don’t always get the federal government looking at you,” Greenlee told a group of 100 Tuesday at the Rotary Club of Memphis. “But when you do, it’s like a dragon. They take you apart.”
Greenlee said the bribery scandal that felled Scruggs, who pleaded guilty, and other prominent members of the small but close North Mississippi legal community and Greenlee’s decision to reopen the 1955 Emmitt Till murder investigation were stories “worthy of (William) Faulkner,” the author and most famous citizen of Oxford.
He also said both cases involved citizens willing to do the right thing at a critical time when others who might have had more political power would not.
“I think it’s going to continue,” Greenlee said after his speech, speaking of corruption and white-collar crime. He cited Plato’s “Republic,” which talked about punishing those at the highest positions for corruption. “Otherwise, why would it stop? You always have to do work on that.”
Greenlee joined the Oxford, Miss., law firm of Holcomb Dunbar in July after serving 10 years as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, which is based in Oxford. Before that, he worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford for another 12 years.
During his tenure as U.S. Attorney, the office reopened the 1955 Till case after a man who was Till’s cousin offered new evidence about what happened the night the Chicago teenager was abducted and later tortured, shot and thrown in a river near Money, Miss.
The two men acquitted of the murder, the pivotal event that kicked off the civil rights movement, later admitted they had killed Till, who was black, for whistling at a white woman, the wife of one of the men.
Wright came to see Greenlee without an appointment to offer new proof about who else was involved.
Three years later, a Circuit Court judge, Henry L. Lackey, came to see Greenlee without an appointment to say there had been an attempt to bribe him with $40,000 by a young lawyer working for Scruggs.
Lackey wore a wire to record the payoffs. The attorney who made the payoff then agreed to wear a wire to record Scruggs. The recorded conversations also led to a second Scruggs case involving the bribery years earlier of another judge, Bobby DeLaughter. All pleaded guilty along with Scruggs.
Greenlee applauded Lackey and Wright for their courage and put them in one of three groups of citizens on a scale of those who might be corruptible.
“The first is the one that they know the ethical rules, but because of self-interest or whatever, they’re not going to go by them. That could be in a company. The other set are people that just always want to do right, no matter what, all the time,” Greenlee said. “There’s a group in the middle that kind of says, ‘I don’t know what I should do and what I should not do.’”
The effort in ethics reform, Greenlee said should be aimed at the group in the middle.
“I think it’s our job … to energize those two groups – the one that always tries to do right and the one that’s kind of on the swing side to help you find out the others and take corrective action with them,” he said.