Scruggs updates, Part IV: Computer funny business

August 25, 2008, 3:30 PM UTC
Fortune

[This is part of a series. The introduction is here.]

Tammy Hardison and Dana Lee last met with Kerri and Cori Rigsby on about May 28, 2006, when they all were spending Memorial Day weekend at the beach in Pensacola, Fla. Both Hardison and Lee remember seeing that Kerri had her State Farm laptop in her truck, and Kerri telling them that she had to go because (in Hardison’s words) “Dickie wants me to meet a hacker who wants to hack into my computer. . . . He just wants . . . to see what he can find.” (Scruggs counsel John Keker declined comment. For a Rigsby lawyer’s general response to all the allegations contained in the Hardison and Lee depositions, see Part I.)

If Scruggs really rummaged around inside a computer full of confidential State Farm documents, that would look worse for him than simply receiving documents that had been provided to him after-the-fact by whistleblowers acting on their own and, in their minds, for altruistic purposes.

This conversation in Pensacola occurred just one weekend before the so-called “data dump,” when the Rigsbys spent a weekend down-loading and copying about 5,000 pages worth of documents from the State Farm database, providing copies to Scruggs, attorney general Jim Hood, and U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton.

Still, it’s unclear to me precisely what the hacker would have done that might have facilitated the data dump in any way. The Rigsbys had been assigned State Farm passwords, so they didn’t need to hack into anything to gain the access they needed.

On the other hand, if Scruggs really did have a computer “hacker” that he turned to from time to time, it increases suspicions about some other funny business involving computers that has been alleged in these cases.

For instance, in September 2006, after the Rigsbys appeared in the episode of ABC’s “20/20” that featured confidential State Farm documents, the Rigsbys’ former employer, E. A. Renfroe & Co. (an independent adjustor firm that provides supplemental adjustors to State Farm and other carriers during catastrophes) sued the Rigsbys for violating the confidentiality provisions of their employment contracts. (Technically, the Rigsbys were never employed directly by State Farm; they were employed by E.A. Renfroe.) In December 2006, U.S. District Judge William Acker, Jr. ordered the Rigsbys and their “agents” and “attorneys” to return to Renfroe all documents that the Rigsbys had clandestinely photocopied or taken while doing claims-adjusting for State Farm.

The Rigsbys did not turn over many documents in response to the Acker order, maintaining that they had previously turned over almost everything to Scruggs. Many months later, however, in fall 2007, State Farm subpoenaed Cori Rigsby’s home computer, to see if pertinent documents were stored there. (The Rigsbys had testified that they e-mailed some State Farm documents to Cori at her personal e-mail account, suggesting that documents might have been stored on her home computer.)

In October 2007, shortly after State Farm issued its subpoena to Cori, the Rigsbys attorneys notified the court that Cori’s home computer had “crashed” in early September 2007, and that she could no longer access any documents from it.

A federal magistrate judge then ordered that Cori turn over her computer to the court and he hired a technical expert to try to retrieve information. Some pertinent State Farm documents were, in fact, retrieved from the machine earlier this year, raising a question about why they had not previously been turned over to E.A. Renfroe in compliance with Judge Acker’s injunction. (Acker issued his injunction in December 2006, and Cori did not claim that her computer crashed until early September 2007.) Lawyers for the Rigsbys sought a protective order to prevent the recovered documents from being turned over to State Farm, but a federal magistrate denied the request last June. He wrote, “This Court will not enter a protective order to preclude State Farm from discovering the State Farm documents Rigsby stole.”