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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Separation Anxiety

Posted By on Tue, Nov 24, 2009 at 5:29 PM

I approach the news of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's separation from his wife Erin with trepidation for a couple reasons. My own parents divorced when my brother and I were only a few years older than the Ravenstahls' son. I hope it doesn't come to that for the mayor's family. My parents' parting was as amicable as it could be, but you couldn't call it fun.

In any case, while I've certainly had differences with Ravenstahl's public policies, I don't care about his personal life. 

What interests me more is the news, tucked down into other media accounts, that the Ravenstahls have retained Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague "to address privacy matters." 

How big a deal is Sprague? Among other things, he has taken on the state's largest newspaper -- and the American Bar Association -- and won.

It's been noted elsewhere already that Sprague once had state Senator Vince Fumo (D-Philadelphia) as a client. Another previous client was basketball star Allen Iverson, who in 2002 was cleared of gun charges after Sprague's "grueling cross-examination" punched holes in the testimony of prosecution witnesses. Long before that, Sprague prosecuted Tony Boyle for the 1969 murder of Jock Yablonski, a Pittsburgh-born labor leader who sought to reform the United Mineworkers, and who was killed for his trouble. (You can watch a 45-minute video of Sprague talking about the case here.)

Sprague has taken on the media too. 

In 1990, a jury awarded Sprague a $34 million libel verdict against the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Years before, the paper had accused Sprague, who then worked in the Philadelphia DA's office, of quashing a murder investigation.) It was said to be the largest verdict ever against a news organization, though the amount was later reduced, and the Inquirer's owner settled for an undisclosed sum.  

As celebrated lawyer F. Lee Bailey wrote in a foreword to a biography of Sprague, "Sprague is not afraid of anybody. He's not afraid of the biggest newspaper in the state ... or the toughest union bosses."

He also wasn't afraid of the American Bar Association. Sprague took them to court too. And that book Bailey wrote the foreword to? Publishing it was reportedly part of the settlement.

According to the Legal Intelligencer (reg. req'd) and other accounts, Sprague objected to a 2000 ABA Journal article that described him as "perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer" in the state. The ABA maintained that the phrase was meant to praise Sprague, but Sprague noted that "fixer" has negative connotations as well.

Eventually, the ABA and Sprague settled, with the Bar Association issuing a statement that read, in part, "[W]e did not intend to disparage Mr. Sprague in any way. Rather,we intended the word to mean someone who is skilled in resolving problems in high-profile, complex cases. We apologize to Mr. Sprague for the personal distress that resulted from our choice of words."

The settlement reportedly also involved a pledge by the ABA to "pay for the publication of Sprague's biography, written by Philadelphia Daily News reporter Joseph R. Daughen."

So let there be no doubt: Richard A. Sprague is one heck of a lawyer. And just in case there is any question whatsoever about this, I intend that phrase to mean he is skilled in resolving problems in high-profile, complex cases. 

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