Fumo team makes plea to remain his counsel

Posted: June 27, 2007

A lawyer representing State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo told a judge yesterday that disqualifying the Sprague & Sprague law firm would harm the senator's ability to mount a defense against federal corruption charges.

"A hardship would be visited upon Sen. Fumo if he was required to change counsel at this time," defense attorney Mark B. Sheppard told U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr.

Sheppard said he and as many as a half-dozen other lawyers at the Sprague & Sprague firm had worked "countless hours" before and since the federal indictment filed earlier this year, and had a "long-standing relationship" with Fumo.

"We hope there's a significant amount of trust that our client has placed in us," Sheppard said.

Fumo, a South Philadelphia Democrat, is accused of using taxpayer and charity money to pay for political polls, power tools, cars, farm equipment and personal errands. He has pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and tax charges.

The trial is set to begin in February.

Fumo was not in court yesterday for the second day of a pretrial hearing on whether Sprague & Sprague should be permitted to defend him at trial.

Sheppard said Fumo was in Harrisburg, where legislators are working on a new state budget. "He just had to be there," Sheppard said.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys John J. Pease and Robert A. Zauzmer have asked Yohn to disqualify the Sprague firm, contending it has too many possible conflicts of interest in the case.

Lawyers for the firm have represented Fumo and Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, Fumo's South Philadelphia charity, which is a key focus of the indictment. Prosecutors believe the nonprofit is a victim in the case.

The legal-conflict issue is important because the firm and its top lawyer, Richard A. Sprague, have represented Fumo for much of the four-year federal investigation.

Sprague said Fumo wanted the firm to continue to do so.

"I sure wouldn't be here fighting, your honor, if he were to say he wants us out," Sprague told Yohn.

Yohn said he realized the lawyers were sensitive about what they perceived as attacks on the firm. "I haven't heard any evidence that anything was done improper," the judge said.

"Thank you, your honor," Sheppard replied.

Sheppard said he and his colleagues at Sprague had become "intimately familiar" with the documents in the case and had interviewed "countless witnesses," even conducting a "shadow investigation" in which they were "trying to talk to the people the government was talking to."

And that would mean shadowing a broad investigation: FBI Agent Vicky Humphreys said that over the course of the inquiry, agents interviewed some 300 witnesses and obtained "hundreds of thousands" of documents and e-mails.

Yohn scheduled oral arguments on the disqualification issue for July 10.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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