I don’t know who I’m more disgusted with in this sordid story — the defendant Scrushy or the press and preachers that defended him. Not that almost all of the press hasn’t largely been bought off for years.
Throughout the six-month trial that led to Richard Scrushy’s acquittal in the $2.7 billion fraud at HealthSouth Corp., a small, influential newspaper consistently printed articles sympathetic to the defense of the fired CEO.
Audry Lewis, the author of those stories in The Birmingham Times, the city’s oldest black-owned paper, now says she was secretly working on behalf of Scrushy, who she says paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before publication.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show The Lewis Group wrote a $5,000 check to Audry Lewis on April 29, 2005 — the day Scrushy hired the company. The head of the company, Times founder Jesse J. Lewis Sr., is not related to Audry Lewis.
The firm wrote another $5,000 check that day to the Rev. Herman Henderson, who employs Audry Lewis at his Believers Temple Church and was among the black preachers supporting Scrushy who were present in the courtroom throughout.
Audry Lewis and Henderson now say Scrushy owes them $150,000 for the newspaper stories and other public relations work, including getting black pastors to attend the trial in a bid to sway the mostly black jury.
The payments raise questions about the legitimacy of the ostensibly grass roots support for Scrushy seen throughout his trial.
During the trial, prosecutors had worried that Scrushy was attempting to sway community opinion — and possibly the jury — with a Bible-study program he hosts on local TV, as well as a daily show about the trial that aired on a local-access channel purchased by Scrushy's son-in-law.
U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, who prosecuted the case, said Audry Lewis’ claims, if true, don’t seem to indicate a crime occurred.
“If you want to pay someone to write favorable stories and can get a paper to print them, I don’t know of any law it violates,” Martin said.