Fumo paid legal bills with campaign cash

Posted: October 01, 2012

Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo was charged with spending "other people's money" when he went on trial in 2008 on corruption charges.

He found a way to avoid using his own money to pay for much of his unsuccessful criminal defense, as well.

Fumo, worth $11 million at the time of his trial, is now in federal prison for his conviction on charges of carrying out a $3.4 million fraud on the state Senate and two nonprofits.

While under FBI investigation, the Philadelphia Democrat tapped his campaign fund to pay $1.1 million in fees to his initial defense lawyer in the case, Richard A. Sprague.

Using campaign money to pay criminal defense lawyers is lawful at the federal level and in Pennsylvania, though against state law in New Jersey.

Sprague's firm, Sprague & Sprague, was also paid about $1.2 million by the state Senate during the marathon, four-year investigation of Fumo, according to interviews and public records.

The Sprague firm has said it was simultaneously representing Fumo personally and the Senate as an institution.

In court, federal prosecutors John J. Pease and Robert A. Zauzmer questioned that arrangement, pointing out that Fumo, as a top senator, controlled Sprague's contract with the Senate. The prosecution said Sprague's varying roles posed a potential conflict, a complaint that Sprague's firm dismissed as based on "patent distortions and scurrilous allegations."

A lawyer with the firm, Geoffrey R. Johnson, said in a 2006 e-mail to The Inquirer, "Fees were paid for representation of the Senate office in an aspect of the investigation related to Senate duties, but no tax dollars were paid for the senator's personal representation."

He would not elaborate then. Sprague could not be reached for comment Friday.

A state law that authorizes the attorney general to seek reimbursement of public money spent on criminal defense legal expenses would not be applicable to the spending in the Fumo case. It would only apply to money spent directly on Fumo's behalf, not spending for which the Senate was the client.

In addition to Sprague, the Fumo case prompted the Senate to hire two other prominent firms, Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young in Philadelphia, and top criminal defense lawyer Sal Cognetti Jr.'s firm in Scranton.

It's not known how much they were paid, but they jointly argued in court that U.S. prosecutors had violated the sanctity of Senate records in seizing Fumo-related material.

That argument was rejected by a district court and an appeals court. The issue had been resolved in favor of federal prosecutors 20 years previously, the appeals court said in a two-paragraph ruling.

Sprague made a similar argument in a separate appeal challenging the investigation. He did not prevail.

In 2007, Fumo and Sprague had a falling out and the senator hired another lawyer for his trial, Dennis Cogan. Under Senate rules, government payment of legal fees ends once an official is indicted, so Fumo could not use Senate funds to pay Cogan during his trial.


Contact Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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