Navigating the treacherous waters of a very public marital split, Luke and Erin Ravenstahl hired a former prosecutor famed for bringing libel actions.
Richard A. Sprague, an 84-year-old bulldog who three decades ago brought down the killers of labor dissident Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, said his mandate is simple:
"My only role is to fight to preserve this couple's privacy, having announced that they're separated and, secondly, to really try to prevent some of the media -- because they feel they need a story -- trying to go on the basis of rumor and innuendo.
"If they do, I will sue them."
His strategy was to issue a statement, then refer questions to the lawyer.
Yesterday, from his Philadelphia office, he fielded questions, at one point telling a reporter to leave his clients in peace, telling another that this has nothing to do with Mr. Ravenstahl's role as mayor.
"This is a family that's separating," Mr. Sprague said. "They're having problems. They're separating. Why don't you leave them alone?"
He made a point of noting that Mrs. Ravenstahl could have grounds to bring suit as a private figure, warning everyone that while Luke Ravenstahl might be a public figure and open to broader, more intrusive coverage, Erin Ravenstahl is not.
"If you look at anything that gets published, it has to be on a standpoint of both," he said.
Born in Baltimore, the son of two psychoanalysts, Mr. Sprague grew up in Lexington, Ky., where he joined the submarine service during World War II. He later moved to Philadelphia, where he became an assistant district attorney and later served as counsel to the House of Representatives investigation into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
He has racked up a list of personal libel suits against newspapers, a sports broadcaster and even the Journal of the American Bar Association.
How did the Ravenstahls choose him?
"Good question. I don't really know how," he said. He will represent them only on issues of privacy and, if it comes to that, defamation.
The potential for trouble surfaced Monday night when the mayor sat down with KDKA television for a one-time-only statement about the separation. Reporter Marty Griffin questioned the mayor on rumors of infidelity.
Mr. Ravenstahl avoided a direct answer -- something Mr. Sprague said made sense.
"I told the mayor to just say that he wants his privacy and issue a statement. I told him 'That's it. Don't talk to anybody else about anything and don't dignify this stuff,' " Mr. Sprague said. "If he dignified that kind of smear -- and that's what I call it -- then he did not follow my instructions."
Mr. Sprague said the strategy for the announcement was a single television interview and a printed statement. After that, the mayor and Mrs. Ravenstahl would refer all questions to Mr. Sprague.
He said he knew the move would anger competing media, but that constant repetition would only keep the story alive.
Other stations, he said, have asked Mr. Ravenstahl to go on camera to simply repeat what he's already said, but Mr. Sprague advises against it.
"My position is the mayor should not discuss anything beyond what I said because it was adding to, then violating, privacy and I don't want to give life to anything," Mr. Sprague said.
Rich Lord contributed to this story. Dennis B. Roddy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1965.