It was an uncomfortable moment between former friends and comrades in battle, Vince Fumo and Dick Sprague.

They ran into each other at developer Peter DePaul's annual Christmas party, a must-attend event for the region's power elite. Egged on by a new girlfriend who wanted to meet Sprague, Fumo reluctantly walked over to the über-lawyer and stuck out his hand.

"I'm not going to shake your hand," Sprague replied.

The frosty encounter last December, relayed by a witness and confirmed by several people close to Fumo, was a public demonstration of something that the state's political and legal insiders had been chattering about for months: Fumo and Sprague were on the rocks.

Once almost as close as father and son, the two made a formidable pair: the Democratic state senator from South Philadelphia whose influence extends throughout the state, and the master lawyer with a fearsome reputation.

The first public intimations of the split surfaced late last fall, when Fumo dumped Sprague as his lawyer even while he prepared for the fight of his life: a massive federal corruption indictment.

As with any divorce, ultimately only Fumo, 64, and Sprague, 82, know what is at the heart of their rift. Neither man will talk about it.

A handful of Philadelphia political figures, including former Mayor John F. Street and union leader John J. Dougherty, would speak about the split on the record. Details of the feud were filled in by friends and allies of the two men, speaking on condition they not be named.

Sprague's allies are emphatic: They say it's all about money - specifically, about Fumo's anger at being asked to pay legitimate legal bills.

Sprague thought Fumo's ire was particularly unjustified, the lawyer's allies say, because he had been charging Fumo a discount rate of $200 an hour. Not only that, they note, the state Senate and Fumo's campaign donors had picked up $2.3 million of the tab anyway, 80 percent of the total.

Some of Fumo's people agree that the dispute was about money - they say that Sprague socked him with outrageous legal bills.

"They were more than friends. They were family," said one Fumo friend. "But, ultimately, the almighty dollar was even more close."

Others in Fumo's camp say the real trigger for the feud was Fumo's opposition to the SugarHouse Casino on Philadelphia's waterfront.

That would be the casino partly owned by Sprague and Sprague's grown son and daughter.

The Fumo version: Sprague got incensed when Fumo raised real concerns about how the casino would affect city neighborhoods. The senator's aides say he was raising those issues months before the split.

"Although Sen. Fumo's opposition to the SugarHouse casino may now be upsetting to Mr. Sprague, his position is based upon serious concerns expressed by his constituents who live near the proposed site," said Fumo's chief spokesman, Gary Tuma.

Those in the Sprague camp doesn't buy it. They say Fumo is now bent on killing SugarHouse to settle a score.

Whatever the reason, the falling out has stirred nonstop gossip and speculation among the powerful.

Electricians Union head Dougherty, another former Fumo ally turned bitter rival, said he could sympathize with Sprague.

"You can do 10 things in a row for Vince," says Dougherty, who is running to replace Fumo in the state Senate. "But when you don't do the 11th, he goes for your jugular."

Dougherty, who considers Sprague a friend, said there was no truth to the speculation by some that the split was just a shadow play, meant to buy Fumo more time in his corruption case.

"The break is for real," Dougherty said. "There is a pretty serious animus there."

Once, Fumo and Sprague vacationed together, savoring stays at a castle in Scotland and tours of Ireland, France and Germany. They would enjoy gourmet meals at their homes - Fumo's Victorian mansion in Philadelphia and Sprague's place, Springwood, on the Main Line. Fumo even recuperated at Springwood after surgeries.

They were a formidable force in the public square, too, with Fumo providing the political clout and Sprague the legal muscle on issues ranging from their fight against a downtown ballpark to overturning Philadelphia's ban on assault weapons.

In sum, they were an inseparable, if odd, couple - the hyperactive Fumo and the soft-spoken man 18 years his senior, whom Fumo once kiddingly called, in a lawsuit deposition, "the one and only Richard A."

An only child whose parents are dead, the twice-divorced Fumo is estranged from his eldest grown daughter. The family void further cemented his bond with Sprague, who became a father figure for the state senator, friends believe.

While Fumo and Sprague seem to have been a team forever, the pair's alliance actually began in the early 1990s.

By then, Fumo was already a power in city and state politics, a leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a key player in the selection of judges, an unparalleled dealmaker - and someone who twice had beaten criminal cases.

Sprague, too, had already made his reputation, as one of the city's most brilliant and intimidating lawyers.

As Robert C. Heim, a former head of the Philadelphia Bar Association, put it, Sprague would be the first inductee "if a Hall of Fame for Philadelphia plaintiffs' lawyers was ever built."

Early in his career, Sprague was a Philadelphia prosecutor, convicting some 400 murder defendants in 17 years.

In a case that brought him a degree of national fame, Sprague relentlessly pursued and prosecuted the head of the United Mine Workers, flipping defendant after defendant to ultimately prove that the UMW boss had hired hit men to kill a rival.

In Philadelphia, Sprague also is known as a scourge of the media. He sued The Inquirer for libel over a 1973 series of articles alleging that he had helped quash the murder prosecution of a friend's son. Sprague won $34 million, but the paper appealed. The case was settled in 1996 for an undisclosed figure.

According to associates, Fumo and Sprague shared a penetrating intellect and a love for discussing the finer points of strategy. They bonded socially and as power players.

At Springwood - a name that Sprague, a history buff, took from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New York estate - Fumo loved it that Sprague could hit a silent button on the table to summon the wait staff. Soon, Fumo had such a button installed in his own dining room.

Sprague was happy to help out his friend, even interviewing housekeepers for him.

Fumo also admired Sprague's launderer. According to Page 49 of the 267-page Fumo indictment, the senator unlawfully used his legislative staff "to transport Fumo's shirts to the attorney's home to be laundered and pressed."

In the legal and political arena, the two men often moved in lockstep.

In 1993, for instance, Fumo led a legislative effort in Harrisburg to overturn Philadelphia's ban on assault rifles. Sprague, meanwhile, sued the city to achieve the same end, representing gun shops.

Sprague also looked out for Fumo in other ways. In 1997, he sued the weekly City Paper, accusing it of libeling Fumo. The case was settled in 2000 for undisclosed terms.

Federal authorities say Fumo sought to get legal work for Sprague's firm, among others. In a pretrial hearing last year, FBI agent Vicki Humphreys read from grand jury testimony in which Verizon executives said that Fumo pushed the phone company to hire Sprague's firm.

Former Verizon president Daniel J. Whelan said he was astounded at Fumo's chutzpah.

"I have to admit, I started laughing at that one," Whelan told the grand jury. "Sprague and Fumo have been close friends and allies for a number of years."

Verizon refused, but later agreed to give work to another Fumo ally.

During the four-year federal investigation, Sprague was Fumo's fierce defender, sparring with reporters and prosecutors on the senator's behalf.

Last year, after the indictment, federal prosecutors tried to split up the two. They filed a motion suggesting Fumo might want to get a new lawyer, saying the Sprague firm represented too many different people who were figures in the investigation. Sprague was so close to Fumo, they said, that the lawyer could even be called as a witness in his trial.

For five months, Fumo fought to keep Sprague. It was all an effort to "smear defense counsel," Sprague said in a court filing.

Three weeks after a judge ruled that Sprague could stay on, Fumo reversed course. "With considerable regret," spokesman Tuma said, Fumo had belatedly decided there was a conflict after all. In his place, Fumo hired veteran Philadelphia defense lawyer Dennis J. Cogan.

Fumo's zig-zag left many confounded. Some thought it was a charade dreamed up by a pair of master tacticians to stall the trial past this month's primary.

In one brief, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Pease wrote "the government firmly believes that defendant Fumo's true motive was . . . to delay the trial of this matter indefinitely in order to gain a tactical and strategic advantage."

Fumo did win a delay, to give Cogan time to clear his schedule and get up to speed. The trial is now to start in September. Fumo last month pulled out of his reelection bid, citing the "cloud" of the indictment.

But those who know the two men say the breach was very real.

Former Mayor Street, for one, said it had left him "shocked and saddened."

"Of course, given the two men's strong personalities," Street said in an e-mail to The Inquirer, "it's only natural when they disagree it can be intense and often (especially with these personality types) irreparable."

When Fumo changed lawyers, there was no mention of an argument about Sprague's bills.

However, in his only public comment on the matter, Fumo spoke to the Daily News in June about his frustration with Sprague's fees.

"You're talking millions, and I can't get a cap [on legal costs] out of him," Fumo said of Sprague. "I love him and he loves me, but he won't give me a cap. The best I got is a ballpark."

Sprague's allies say Fumo simply balked at paying up.

More than any other politician, Fumo was responsible for bringing gambling to Pennsylvania, writing the law and building the political coalition that got it through the state's conservative legislature.

Sprague and his family are among those who stand to benefit from gaming. Each of his children - Thomas A. Sprague, a lawyer in his father's firm, and Barbara A. Sprague, an architect - owns 6.55 percent of SugarHouse. Sprague himself owns a tiny percentage as well.

In this, too, the rival camps are trading charge and countercharge.

Sprague's allies says Fumo turned strongly against SugarHouse only after the falling-out.

But Tuma, Fumo's spokesman, said that the senator's criticism of both SugarHouse and the other city casino, Foxwoods, "predates the end of his relationship with Mr. Sprague."

In July 2007, two months before he changed lawyers, Fumo sponsored legislation to ban casinos within 500 yards of urban neighborhoods - a move that would have effectively blocked both SugarHouse and Foxwoods.

But Sprague's allies say Fumo wasn't really serious about the buffer law. At the time, they note, Fumo put out a news release that said his own bill was "inherently flawed" and had virtually no chance of passing.

Late last year, after the two men split, Fumo took further steps against SugarHouse, filing court actions questioning whether the casino had an uncontrolled right to develop the riverfront site.

So far, he hasn't been successful. The state Supreme Court has issued a pair of rulings clearing the way for casino construction.

One leading gambling opponent said he hoped the Fumo/Sprague split would end up helping his cause.

"Whenever rich political alliances are made, they normally work at the expense of the average person in Philadelphia," said Daniel Hunter, the organizer for Casino-Free Philadelphia.

"And whenever rich political folks are challenging each other, it's more likely that crumbs will fall off the table and that the rest will benefit."

Whatever the outcome of the casino fight, Michael Young, a former Pennsylvania State University professor who has tracked Pennsylvania politics for three decades, said the split between Fumo and Sprague reminded him of an adage.

"In politics," Young said, "you have no real friends, only real interests."

For a slide show and more about Fumo's political career, visit

http://go.philly.com/fumo