Richard Scrushy's Chief Believer
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Four months before the start of his $2.7 billion fraud trial, former HealthSouth Corp. chief executive Richard M. Scrushy was awakened at 2:51 a.m. by a call from God. God told Scrushy, according to his wife, Leslie, that he had to fire high-powered Washington attorney Abbe Lowell even though the trial was fast approaching.
Scrushy followed this instruction, replacing Lowell with a down-home fellow named Jim Parkman from Dothan, Ala., whose typical opening statement quotes his grandmother. "No matter how thin you pour it," Parkman told the jury in Birmingham last year, "there are always two sides to a pancake."
What happened next convinced Leslie that God was watching over her family. When the time came to cross-examine the government's star witness, former chief financial officer William T. Owens, it was National Pancake Week. And in the last two hours of the last day of National Pancake Week, Parkman succeeded in undermining Owens's credibility by getting him to testify that he once claimed to be "the smartest person alive" -- this from a man who admitted involvement in the HealthSouth fraud.
"That had to be God," said Leslie, who marked the week in the little red Bible she carries. "I never even knew there was a National Pancake Week."
The convergence of events also had a little help from the Scrushys, who were present at a birthday party when Owens made his boast, and passed the information to Richard's attorneys -- testimony that contributed to his eventual acquittal.
As Richard, 53, stands trial again, this time on corruption charges, Leslie's image as diamond-studded trophy wife is much misunderstood, friends and associates say. In the first trial, the 37-year-old former Junior Miss from Florida with sweeping brown hair and green eyes not only offered spiritual advice, but much, much more.
"Leslie was a key adviser, a morale booster, a commentator on proposed strategy and a co-decision maker," said one of Scrushy's defense lawyers, Donald V. Watkins.
Leslie Scrushy reviewed FBI statements, questioned strategy and offered insight into how the jury viewed testimony. She led prayers before each day in court and dished the dirt on witnesses during recesses.
In her view, the four-month trial of her husband wasn't a trial in the usual sense of the word. It was a journey in faith, a time that gave her a more intimate relationship with the God she first became close to as a teenager. The existence of National Pancake Week was one of only a number of "miracles," she said. "We knew that whatever happened, it was God's plan for us."
A lot of people in Birmingham, a city divided by old and new money as well as race, regard the Scrushys as opportunists who cynically used their faith to elicit sympathy from a jury with attitudes honed in the Deep South. God, they say, had nothing to do with the surprise acquittal on June 28 of Richard Scrushy. That he has been set free is all the more remarkable because the prosecution had lined up no fewer than five former chief financial officers to testify against him in the first test of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires chief executives to attest to the accuracy of financial statements.
Of all the corporate scandals since the fall of Enron, that surrounding Richard Scrushy is among the most unusual. The unremarkable middle child of a nurse and a cash register salesman in Selma, he dropped out of high school to marry his pregnant girlfriend, then worked a series of nowhere jobs until he earned his GED and trained as a respiratory therapist. It wasn't until he was 30, divorced and remarried that he started a chain of outpatient clinics that became HealthSouth. By 1986, with $20 million in revenue, the company had gone public, and Scrushy was on his way to becoming mega-rich as head of one the country's biggest health-care companies.
It all came tumbling down in 2002 when the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating his sale of $100 million of HealthSouth shares. The SEC and the Justice Department suspected insider trading, found fraud and lined up more than a dozen execs who fingered Scrushy. He went to trial, beat the feds and got off.