His fame is eclipsed by his infamy.
Dickie Scruggs became one of the nation’s most successful plaintiff lawyers through his prosecution of big tobacco and asbestos industries, becoming a multimillionaire in the process. Curtis Wilkie’s 2010 book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” chronicled the Oxford attorney’s staggering fall as the result of a judicial bribery scandal that sent both Scruggs, and his son, Zach, to prison and stripped them of their right to practice law.
The book is a cautionary tale of greed and hubris.
Now, two years after the elder Scruggs was released from federal prison in Kentucky, the father and son are writing a story of a different sort.
It was that story that the Scruggs delivered Tuesday to the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Center.
“To start off, I’ll give you a number: 50,” Zach Scruggs said. “Mississippi is 50th in the nation in the number of adults without a high school diploma.
“We are also 50th in workforce participation, which is the number of people who are working or looking for work,” he added. “Mississippi, like every state, has a lot of challenges. But the lack of an education is the root cause of every problem we have.”
The Scruggses are making an effort to change those numbers. Dickie Scruggs, now 70, has founded a nonprofit to fund adult education and workforce training called 2nd Chance MS. Zach Scruggs, 42, is the organization’s executive director.
The organization is partnering with the state’s community-college system to help adults attain their high school equivalency, called the GED, while simultaneously receiving workforce training.
“Our community colleges have the mandate for providing adult education,” Zach Scruggs said. “They do a terrific job, given their resources. But that’s the problem. State funding provides only $400 per student for adult education. That’s not nearly enough.”
For the elder Scruggs, the problem first caught his attention during his six years in prison.
“The median education level (among inmates) was sixth grade,” Dickie Scruggs said. “They virtually had no chance. But when an inmate gets his GED, he’s half as likely to re-offend after leaving prison and three times more likely to get a job.”
2nd Chance MS has started two pilot programs this fall, one at the Corinth campus of Northeast Community College and the other at Itawamba Community College in Fulton.
The six-month program will serve a combined 100 adult students, not only allowing them to complete their GED but gain certification in six manufacturing skills.
“We pay their tuition, which is $250,” Dickie Scruggs said. “We also give them $20 a week in gas money on a gas card, then give them $250 when they finish the program.”
Scruggs said that’s a bargain considering what the state spends to create jobs through its economic development recruiting efforts.
“All the tax breaks in the world aren’t going to do what needs to be done, which is make sure we have the kind of educated work force that companies need,” Dickie Scruggs said. “Just recently, the state spent $600 million to recruit Continental Tire, which will produce 2,500 jobs. Do the math. That comes out to $240,000 per job.
“We don’t have to do that,” he added. “We can take 100 people that don’t have a chance, really, people who have no diploma or skills and we can give them both and get them into the workforce.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]