By: JAY REEVES, Associated Press Writer
(AP) 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.
The prosecutor in Scrushy’s case, however, said there would not be anything illegal about someone offering money for favorable news articles, and jurors have said they were not influenced by media coverage but by a lack of evidence that Scrushy was involved in the scheme to overstate earnings at HealthSouth.
In an e-mail response to questions from the AP, Scrushy denied authorizing payments to Henderson or Audry Lewis for any work on his behalf.
Scrushy said he “hit the ceiling” when he learned that the PR firm had paid Henderson but added that he had considered Audry Lewis to be “a nice Christian woman that thought we had been treated badly and she wanted to help.”
Now he said he knows they are both “about the bucks.”
Jesse Lewis, whose son James E. Lewis Sr. is listed as the paper’s editor, 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.
Audry Lewis’ columns were uniformly flattering toward the defense, both before and after money changed hands. After Scrushy hired The Lewis Group, her stories moved from inside the newspaper to the front page.
The day jurors got the case, the Times featured a front-page piece by Audry Lewis saying “pastors and community leaders have rallied around Scrushy showing him the support of the Christian and African American community.”
Audry Lewis said she initially wrote the columns and submitted them to the paper for free because she believed Scrushy was innocent.
Scrushy liked the pieces and began paying her to write the articles midway through the case, she said.
“He didn’t think he was getting a fair shake in the media, which is why he hired me,” she said in an interview. She said she sent unedited copies of her stories to Scrushy and Jesse Lewis, who had them put in the paper.
Scrushy said he looked at some of her stories before publication “to make sure the facts from the trial were correct.”
After the initial check for $5,000, Audry Lewis said she later got another $6,000 from Scrushy that was routed through the public relations firm, including $1,000 to replace a stolen computer.
Separately, a Colorado public relations man who worked for Scrushy, Charlie Russell, said he gave Audry Lewis $2,500 during the trial and signed a contract stating the money was an advance payment for possible work after the verdict.
Russell said she didn’t do any work for the defense after the trial, but he denied the payment was for her stories. Russell said he gave Audry Lewis money mainly out of sympathy when one of her relatives died in Detroit and she lacked funds to get to the funeral.
Scrushy gave Henderson’s church and an associated thrift store five checks totaling $25,000 during and after the trial, according to copies of checks provided by Henderson.
Henderson said he was paid for his efforts to raise support for the defendant, but Scrushy said he had given money to the church because Henderson and Audry Lewis had asked for his help with a church building project.
Donald V. Watkins, an attorney who represented Scrushy in the trial, said the allegations by Audry Lewis and Henderson, along with their requests for more money, “could be perceived as a shakedown. It definitely is a hustle.”
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.