Sprague Libel Suit Takes on ABA

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Sprague Libel Suit Takes on ABA


Byline: Frank J. Murray, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The American Bar Association would seem the least likely source for an article labeling a prominent member as a "fixer," and Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague definitely is anyone's worst choice to libel.

A libel lawsuit now being readied for federal trial will test Mr. Sprague's claim that his reputation was trashed in "the most destructive and despicable way" when the ABA Journal called him "perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer in the state."

A key irony in Sprague v. ABA is the contention by the organization devoted to defending legal professionalism and civility that "fixer" can mean a good thing.

Senior writer Terry P. Carter testified he meant "fixer" as praise. "It's certainly the way I intended it and expected it, and I do believe it," he said.

Mr. Sprague, who never lets anyone call him names, has collected millions of dollars with help from noted libel lawyer James Beasley in two unrelated lawsuits against newspapers that questioned his ethics in ways that one judge said blackened his name beyond repair.

A Washington press-law specialist said Mr. Sprague is a rarity for collecting a libel judgment more than once in a lifetime.

"He is the king of libel recovery, clearly one of America's most winning libel plaintiffs, if not the winningest," lawyer Bruce Sanford said.

U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. said the ABA's proposed definition of the term used in "Cops in the Crossfire" will be for a jury to decide. He larded his ruling with episodes of bribery and courthouse skullduggery by lawyers described as fixers.

The ABA would not comment for this article, but a published clarification written by ABA Deputy General Counsel Catherine A. Daubard said "fixer" was intended "to mean that Mr. Sprague is known for his problem-solving skills in politically nuanced cases."

ABA's legal filings supporting that definition invoked politically-savvy legal giants Lloyd Cutler, Vernon Jordan and Clark Clifford.

"That reference remains slippery," Judge Yohn concluded, saying "fixer" can be a pejorative among lawyers. "I must find that readers of ABA Journal could possibly have understood the term 'fixer' to be defamatory. …

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