Richard Sprague Sues Daily News

Files libel action against paper

Any journalist in Philadelphia knows that if you’re going to write something unpleasant about attorney Richard Sprague, you had better be sure that what you’re saying is solid. After all, this is the guy who won a record-breaking $34 million verdict against the Philadelphia Inquirer for his 1973 libel suit over articles the paper published about Sprague when he was a prosecutor. As a result, Philadelphia magazine once declared this city “the most dangerous place in America in which to practice journalism.”

So when longtime Daily News writer Jill Porter penned her February 2009 column “Law, Duty, and Truth,” in which she blasted Sprague for alleged statements and behavior regarding his embattled former client, Vince Fumo, she must have been at least a little concerned. “Sprague, once Fumo’s beloved mentor and best friend, labeled Fumo a liar when he testified at Fumo’s trial this week,” she wrote. “But he acknowledged that he was something of a liar, too.”

In the suit, filed by James Beasley, Jr., whose late father represented Sprague in the 1973 matter, Sprague maintains that he did not “acknowledge that he was something of a liar” and that this statement and other “accusations are false and were maliciously published with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for their truth and with reckless indifference to Mr. Sprague’s good name and reputation.” It should also be noted that Beasley, with a flair for the dramatic, footnoted a portion of the complaint with a bit of Shakespeare: “‘The purest treasure mortal times afford / Is spotless reputation: that away, / Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.’ Richard II, (I.i).”

In the defendant’s answer to the complaint, filed by attorneys at Pepper Hamilton LLP, who do not invoke the Bard, the Daily News denies any wrongdoing, including Sprague’s allegations of libel.

The suit, originally filed in 2010 but deferred due to the newspapers’ bankruptcy proceedings, is currently projected for trial in 2013. But the 1973 lawsuit did not reach its final conclusion until almost three decades later when the parties settled for an undisclosed, though certainly enormous, sum out of court after the $34 million judgment was reduced to $24 million and the Supreme Court declined to hear the Inquirer‘s subsequent appeal. Considering the length of that case and Sprague’s advanced age (he’s in his mid-80s), the actuarial tables don’t exactly favor the storied litigator this time around.