Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sprague will not defend Fumo

Sprague will not defend Fumo


The state senator decided the law firm has too many conflicts to stay on his corruption case.


By John Shiffman

Inquirer Staff Writer


State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo faces 139 felony counts.


In a surprise move, indicted State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo yesterday asked his lawyer and friend, Richard A. Sprague, to withdraw from his defense.


Fumo, who fought all summer against the government's attempts to disqualify Sprague, changed course and decided the law firm's potential conflicts might hurt his defense after all, a spokesman said.


Fumo, 64, faces 139 federal felony counts. He is charged with using Senate employees for personal and political tasks and with defrauding the South Philadelphia charity Citizens' Alliance and the Independence Seaport Museum.


Fumo made the request just three weeks after winning a major ruling that would have allowed Sprague to stay on the case.


U.S. District Judge William A. Yohn Jr. moved swiftly in response. He ordered Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat, to appear in court on Friday to discuss the matter and warned that the senator's search for a new lawyer would not delay the trial, scheduled to begin in February.


"Boy, I'd sure like to be a fly on the wall of Judge Yohn's chambers right now," said L. George Parry, a veteran Philadelphia lawyer who has followed the case closely.


"He's got to be wondering: 'Why did we go through all this litigation about whether the Sprague firm had conflicts if this is what Sen. Fumo intended to do all along?'


"It would seem to raise the question of whether they were gaming the system."


Gary Tuma, the senator's spokesman, said Fumo made his decision reluctantly and only last week. He said doing this would cost Fumo far more in legal fees and disrupt a well-planned defense.


Mark Sheppard, a lawyer for Sprague & Sprague, declined to comment. In a filing, the firm said only: "There exists good cause in seeking to withdraw."


Sprague & Sprague lawyers have detailed knowledge of the massive government investigation of Fumo, which includes hundreds of witnesses, thousands of pages of grand jury transcripts, and hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages.


What's more, with Sprague representing Fumo, the trial promised to showcase a legendary Philadelphia trial lawyer defending a legendary Philadelphia politician.


Many in the city's legal and political circles eagerly anticipated a courtroom showdown between Sprague, who turns 82 this week, and two sharp federal prosecutors half his age.


No more.


It may take Fumo "some time" to find a new lawyer, his spokesman said.


"He's going to have to look around," Tuma said. "A lot of the best Philadelphia lawyers are already involved and have conflicts."


Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer said the government had no objections to Fumo's request for a new lawyer, "given that we filed the motion for disqualification based on conflicts of interest."


As the FBI dug into Fumo's finances, Sprague and his associates represented other organizations in Fumo's network, including the state Senate, the seaport museum and Citizens' Alliance.


Prosecutors eventually charged Fumo with defrauding those organizations. That left the Sprague firm with divided loyalties, prosecutors said: Senate, charity and museum employees called to testify would have faced cross-examination from their former lawyer, Sprague.


Yohn had spent months analyzing the conflict-of-interest issues before issuing a 54-page ruling last month that allowed Sprague to remain on the case.


Despite several "minor" conflicts, Yohn reasoned, it was more important that Fumo receive "the counsel of his choice." He also said the Sprague firm knew the case better than any other.


His ruling included a special requirement: Fumo had to appear in court Sept. 28 and officially waive any conflicts of interest.


At that hearing, Yohn would ask Fumo questions to ensure the senator understood the conflict issues and how they might hinder his defense.


Prosecutors filed a list of proposed questions last week. That sent Fumo back to his independent lawyer, Glenn A. Zeitz of Haddonfield, Tuma said.


After that review, Fumo concluded "with considerable regret" that "conflict issues were significant enough" that it was in his best interest to find another lawyer, Tuma said.


Fumo made that decision knowing it would end up costing him more money in legal fees, Tuma said. New attorneys will have to spend hundreds of hours getting up to speed.


Zeitz, who notified the judge of Fumo's decision by confidential letter dated Friday, did not return a call for comment.


Yesterday, hours after Fumo changed his mind, Yohn ordered the senator to appear in court on Friday. If he has a new lawyer by then, Yohn said, he should appear, too.


If Fumo does not have a lawyer, Yohn ordered, he will have only limited time to find one so the trial can begin on time.


The grand jury indictment says Fumo, whose personal worth exceeds $20 million, used more than $1 million of Citizens' Alliance money to furnish houses that he keeps in the city, at the Shore, and on a farm near Harrisburg.


Fumo used the charity's money to pay for political polls, cars, power tools, farm equipment, personal errands and shopping sprees, authorities say.


The indictment says Fumo also engaged in a cover-up and used people on the Senate payroll to spy on ex-girlfriends and political opponents.


If convicted, he probably faces two to four years in prison, perhaps as many as 10.


Fumo, one of the state's most influential senators, has said he is the victim of a politically inspired prosecution.



Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 215-854-2658 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.





No comments: