GOP leaders try to call Castor off Richard Sprague, a libel lawyer, urged the Montco district attorney to retract accusations.

Posted: January 10, 2004

Local Republican leaders yesterday tried to silence Bruce L. Castor Jr., the Montgomery County district attorney who is waging a maverick campaign to become the state's attorney general. Castor replied with yet another sally against the party establishment, casting his opponent as a pawn in the effort to legalize gaming in Pennsylvania.

Prominent libel lawyer Richard Sprague wrote Castor on behalf of Republican chairmen of Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester and Delaware Counties. In his letter, hand-delivered yesterday, Sprague demanded that Castor take back his accusation that the four leaders sold their endorsement for political contributions.

The chairmen, in a Dec. 17 straw poll, voted to endorse Thomas Corbett, a former U.S. attorney from Pittsburgh, as the Republican attorney general candidate over Castor. Castor was disappointed that he received only the endorsement from Montgomery County, and he lashed out at the other county leaders later that day.

In yesterday's letter, Sprague demanded "that you retract your false, malicious and defamatory accusations against my clients and apologize for said defamations in order to mitigate the damage you have done to their reputations."

The specter of a libel lawsuit didn't seem to faze the Castor camp, however. Castor's campaign spokesman, Steve O'Toole, said only: "We'll respond to them in good time."

Instead, Castor took his campaign further outside the Republican mainstream, lobbing firebombs against Corbett and Castor's favorite nemesis, Republican national committeeman Robert Asher.

In a news release e-mailed yesterday afternoon, Castor portrayed Corbett as a puppet in Asher's bid to profit from legalized gaming in Pennsylvania. Castor also reiterated his accusations against the Philadelphia-area party chairmen, which were similarly based on Asher's alleged domination of Republican politics through his fund-raising clout.

Asher and his family have given $12,000 to the Corbett campaign, and the political action committee Asher chairs - the Pennsylvania Future Fund - gave $50,000 to Corbett on the day Castor announced his candidacy.

Castor depicted Asher's support for Corbett as a scheme to cash in on legalized gaming, which is being debated in Harrisburg. Asher was listed as a consultant for a group of investors seeking to build a harness track and slot-machine parlor at the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

The new attorney general would have a prominent role in reviewing gaming licenses and assessing whether new gaming legislation is constitutional, Castor said. Corbett's camp disputes Castor's contention.

"Bob Asher's primary political concern in 2004 is the election of an attorney general who understands his lobbying interests - an attorney general who could help make Asher's lobbying efforts successful," Castor said.

Castor said Asher has been operating "under the radar" as a lobbyist for the gambling industry, using his position as national committeeman and finance chairman of the state Republican Party to promote his own interests.

Asher denied yesterday that he acted as a lobbyist for his client, PTP Racing. He said that he was paid about $7,000 a month for expenses in August, September and October to report on the state Senate's stance on proposed gaming legislation but that he did not ask senators to vote for a particular bill. He said that he severed his financial relationship with the company Nov. 1 but that he was willing to advise it in the future.

Asher said he has long been a proponent of legalized gaming to provide property-tax relief to seniors. He can hold no financial interest in a company involved with a gaming license because of his 1986 felony conviction on federal bribery-related charges.

Castor has criticized Asher's prominent role in the state GOP and the attorney general's race in particular, based on his past.

Asher said yesterday that Castor was fishing for material. "I'm not at war with Castor; he's at war with me," Asher said. "He doesn't want to deal with Corbett. He doesn't want to deal with the issues."

Castor's focus on Asher has not made him popular with mainstream Republicans, and it contributed to a split with his campaign manager, Keith Naughton, who has engineered successful Republican campaigns across the state.

Naughton, who left the Castor campaign last week, said: "He wanted to take the campaign in one direction, and I didn't agree with it."

Castor yesterday wrote to U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who was critical of Castor's remarks against Asher. Castor had promised in December to lay out his case for Santorum, and yesterday's release fulfilled that promise, Castor said.

Corbett, who already has the endorsement of three of six Republican caucuses in the state, expects to add a fourth, the Central Caucus, today, said his campaign manager, Brian Nutt.

Nutt mocked Castor's long-promised response to Santorum.

"We were waiting three weeks for all this information, this smoking gun, and this is all he comes up with?" Nutt said.

The state Republican Committee is to make endorsements at its meeting in Harrisburg on Jan. 24. Castor has said he would seek the nomination in a primary.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields

at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.

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