- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

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."
Other than the fact that it is ABA doing the name-calling, the Sprague lawsuit is reminiscent of lawyer-philanthropist Milton A. Rudin's 1983 claim against Barron's magazine caption calling him "Sinatra's Mouthpiece." A judge threw it out, saying the Barron's readers would not think "mouthpiece" meant a "criminal lawyer lacking integrity."
In this instance the burden is on Mr. Sprague to prove the ABA acted with legal "malice" meaning a willful or reckless disregard for the truth.
The Sprague trial could also raise questions about how many times one man's reputation can be destroyed by writers.
In theory, Mr. Sanford said, a libel victory restores a plaintiff's reputation, but Mr. Sprague's own description of the damage in previous cases could affect any claim for money.
"When Sprague's lawyer gets to the damage phase of the case, that is a novel argument I suppose one could make, that he doesn't have much of a reputation left that would need to be compensated for the damage," Mr. Sanford said.
In Pennsylvania, where he collects up to $1 million for a criminal case, Mr. Sprague makes news simply by signing a client. In 1976 he was the first chief counsel of the House Special Committee on Assassinations investigating the killings of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
His biggest victory in a libel case came in 1996 when the Philadelphia Inquirer settled rather than seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of a $24 million verdict. The secret final settlement was estimated at $20 million.
Inquirer articles in the 1970s said Mr. Sprague had a role in quashing the murder investigation of a friend's son when Mr. Sprague headed Philadelphia homicide prosecutions. In affirming that libel judgment, Common Pleas Judge Charles P. Mirarchi wrote, "Sprague enjoyed an unimpeachable reputation. These defamatory articles painted Sprague's reputation with a black brush, which is resistant to all erasable solvents."
In a libel suit against the Philadelphia Bulletin, Mr. Sprague got a settlement after the paper folded in 1982.

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