ABA publishes flattering book as part of lawsuit settlement

by Walter Olson on January 7, 2009

Kudos to Law Librarian Blog (via Ambrogi) for this astonishing story: longtime readers may remember the bizarre defamation case filed by Philadelphia lawyer Richard Sprague against the American Bar Association over an article in which Terry Carter, a respected veteran of legal journalism, had described Sprague as “perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer” in the state of Pennsylvania. Although the word “fixer” is long established in its meaning of “political wheeler-dealer and problem-solver”, a sense which cannot be said to imply any illegality, Sprague argued that in this instance it implied that he “fixed” legal cases. When the settlement was announced, its terms were disclosed only in part: Shannon P. Duffy of the Legal Intelligencer quoted Sprague’s lawyer, the very powerful James Beasley Jr., as saying it was a “damned good settlement.” Pennsylvania and Philadelphia in particular, as I’ve had occasion to note in the past, have a local tradition of plaintiff-friendly jurisprudence for public figures that is almost enough to make you wonder whether they exist as part of the same country as the rest of us who publish under the Times v. Sullivan regime.

But I never anticipated what was to emerge next from the ABA/Sprague entanglement. Here’s the first paragraph of Robert Ambrogi’s blog entry:

The American Bar Association’s book division recently published Fearless: The Richard A. Sprague Story. The ABA calls the biography the chronicle of “the significant events of a renowned Philadelphia lawyer” and the “compelling story of a man who wasn’t afraid to risk everything to fight for his fellow man.” Amidst all this praise for the book, the ABA never mentions that it agreed to publish it only as part of a settlement of Sprague’s libel lawsuit against it.

Sprague long represented Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Fumo but eventually fell out with him; he makes a cameo appearance in this vignette which itself tells much about the, um, vigorous way some figures in the Philadelphia political establishment deal with their critics. Fumo is now the defendant in a spectacular trial on corruption charges that itself deserves much more national attention than it has received. More: Philadelphia Daily News.

More from Ken at Popehat: “I’ve seen many things exchanged in aid of settlement — money, real property, personal property, apologies, handshakes, and a wide variety of promises. … However, before now, I had never seen a litigant promise to act as a vanity press.” And attorney/blogger Max Kennerly of the Beasley Firm also has a comment giving further background on the controversies, as well as on the Fumo trial, which he’s been blogging.

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1 Max Kennerly 01.07.09 at 12:19 pm

I have been blogging about the Fumo trial regularly. One of the chief reasons the trial has not received much national attention is because it is not actually a corruption trial.

The prosecutors began their investigation for corruption, based upon two separate eight-figure settlements that Fumo reached with PECO (the local energy monopoly) and Verizon, settlements that appeared to blur the line between benefiting Senator Fumo’s constituents and benefiting aggrieved citizen Fumo.

For whatever reason, though, the government did not actually indict Fumo for corruption, but rather primarily for defrauding to nonprofits closely tied to him. “Defrauding” is a lot stronger word than the evidence seems to show — everyone at the nonprofits either knew or did not care about how much they were spending for Fumo’s benefit. (There are also indictments for misusing Senate staff and for obstruction of justice by destroying emails.)

I’d also point out that the context of the “fixer” in the ABA article contributed to the defamatory meaning. You may want to take that with a grain of salt, though; my firm represented Sprague in that matter. We also represented Sprague in the $34-million-Philadelphia-verdict mentioned in the Forbes story. You can get a lot more detail on that case in the biography recently published of Beasley (which was not part of a settlement), available at http://www.courtroomcowboy.com.

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