Writer Says Scrushy Paid Her for Articles
Friday, January 20, 2006
BIRMINGHAM, Jan. 19 -- A writer who wrote sympathetic newspaper stories about former HealthSouth Corp. chief executive Richard M. Scrushy during his fraud trial says Scrushy secretly paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before publication.
Documents obtained by the Associated Press show that the PR firm wrote thousands of dollars in checks to Audry Lewis, whose freelance articles appeared in the Birmingham Times, a small but influential black newspaper.
The documents also show that money from the PR firm went to a pastor who says he was paid to help bring fellow black preachers into the courtroom in a bid to sway the mostly black jury in Scrushy's favor.
Scrushy, acquitted in June of involvement in a $2.7 billion accounting fraud scheme at the chain of health clinics, strongly denied authorizing payments to Lewis or the pastor, Herman Henderson, for any work on his behalf. The executive said he did give money to Henderson's church for a building fund and for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
The lead prosecutor in Scrushy's case said there was nothing criminal in what Lewis and Henderson described, and members of the jury have said the only thing that influenced them was a lack of evidence against the defendant. But the payments raise questions about the legitimacy of the ostensibly grass-roots support for Scrushy during his trial.
During the trial, prosecutors 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 with a daily show about the trial that aired on a local-access channel purchased by Scrushy's son-in-law.
Lewis and Henderson said Scrushy still owes them a combined $150,000 for the newspaper stories and other public relations work. An attorney for Scrushy, Donald V. Watkins, said the allegations and the request for more money "could be perceived as a shakedown."
Lewis's articles in the city's oldest black-owned newspaper were uniformly flattering toward the defense before and after money changed hands. Her stories started to run on the front page after she began receiving payments from the PR firm.
The day jurors got the case, the Times featured a front-page piece by Lewis saying "pastors and community leaders have rallied around Scrushy showing him the support of the Christian and African American community."
The PR firm, the Lewis Group, is headed by Jesse J. Lewis Sr. He is the founder of the Times, and his son is listed as the paper's editor. Jesse Lewis Sr. denied being part of any scheme to plant favorable coverage of Scrushy in the paper.
"We are in the advertising and public relations business, period," he said.
The editor of the Birmingham Times, James E. Lewis, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.