News & Politics

Who Ya Gonna Call? Joe Paterno Looks to Washington for Legal Counsel, PR Help

Penn State’s deposed football coach seeks advice from some well-known local firms.

As the walls come crashing down on Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s formerly privileged and protected world, he’s had to face the fact that all the professional, and perhaps legal, Teflon he took for granted is gone. Regardless of the fact that he didn’t commit the actual crime—sexual assault of teenage boys—he is still in the crosshairs of the case that centers on former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky. So where did he turn for legal and communications representation? He turned to Washington. He’s in talks with lawyer J. Sedwick Sollers of the downtown firm King & Spalding, and for crisis communications and public relations advice, he’s hired Dan McGinn of TMG Strategies, based in Clarendon. The Washingtonian looks at both men, their firms, and the task ahead.

Sedwick Sollers, known among the legal community in Washington as Wick, has been contacted apparently to guide Paterno through both the state attorney general investigation and the onslaught of civil suits sure to be filed against him by Sandusky’s victims and others. Though some initial reports of Sollers’ involvement touted him as a top criminal defender, he is not among the circle of elite Washington white-collar defenders whom celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile folks usually turn to in this city when they’re in trouble.

If Paterno really thought the you-know-what was about to hit the fan, lawyers he’d turn to would most likely be Steptoe & Johnson’s Reid Weingarten (who represents Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein), Chadbourne & Parke’s Abbe Lowell (John Edwards’s lawyer), and Williams & Connolly’s Brendan Sullivan (currently counseling Rupert Murdoch through News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal). Pennsylvania attorney general Linda Kelly has said that Paterno is not the target of a criminal investigation, and indeed he has not been charged with any crimes. Though it’s easy to assume his decision to lawyer up means he thinks this will change, his apparent passing over of the obvious choices for someone in serious criminal trouble is actually an indication that he does not anticipate the focus of the criminal investigation to shift to him.

Not that Wick Sollers isn’t a stellar lawyer with a longstanding great reputation. In the words of another well-regarded DC attorney, Paterno “needs a hand-holder . . . Wick is a decent, careful guy.” Sollers has been the managing partner of the DC office of King & Spalding, a large Atlanta-based firm, for years. He does plenty of criminal work, though it revolves around representing corporations and their executives rather than celebrity types, and he also focuses on civil litigation—likely more along the lines of what Paterno will need him for. Though Sollers did not return a call for comment, according to King & Spalding’s website, he is currently representing pharmaceutical companies in criminal and civil investigations. He, of course, did counsel a high-profile individual years ago when he represented George H.W. Bush in the Iran-Contra investigation.

The firm is likely best known in Washington as where Paul Clement practiced before joining the George W. Bush administration. Clement rejoined King & Spalding after leaving his post as US solicitor general, and, at the time, multiple sources said the firm offered him about $5 million a year. King & Spalding got some bad press in April when Clement resigned from the firm amid controversy over his decision to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in litigation. The fact that King & Spalding has landed the splashy JoePa work is a coup for its Washington outpost.

Even though he is a public relations specialist, Dan McGinn is not returning our calls—at least, not yet. TMG Strategies, where he is the CEO, defines its mandate this way: “First, we identify what our clients’ toughest challenges are. Then we ask ourselves, What can we know now that will help our clients navigate around the pitfalls of today and seize the opportunities of tomorrow?” The firm’s clients include General Motors, Texaco, IBM, Coke, 3M, and other Fortune 500 names; McGinn himself has represented “major universities, scores of law firms, and numerous elected officials and government agencies.”

When it comes to Paterno, McGinn’s work may be all uphill, at least according to two crisis communications specialists who spoke off the record. One New York crisis manager, who specializes in sports clients, says, “This isn’t really a sports issue. It’s a legal issue, a crisis with sports elements. His brand and image are tarnished, but everybody’s image can be rebuilt.”

That was an optimistic view. According to another New York crisis specialist, “This is a tough one. The facts behind this case are so freaking egregious. It puts [Sandusky] in Catholic church territory, way behind the Boy Scouts.”

One crisis veteran who would go on the record was Lou Colasuonno of FTI Consulting, which has offices in Washington, New York, London, and elsewhere. His clients have included Martha Stewart during her stock scandal and trial; Sotheby’s Alfred Taubman, who went to jail for price fixing; the Versace family after the Miami murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace; and the late writer Dominic Dunn when he was hit with an $11 million dollar libel suit by former California Rep. Gary Condit.

Colasuonno calls Paterno’s image “severely damaged.” He says it’s “impossible to turn this around now in the glare of the unfolding events. He needs to lie low. He needs to be careful, because he has serious legal exposure. I have no doubt the parents of these kids will sue everybody for tens of millions of dollars. Paterno knows that’s coming, and his legal exposure needs to be a high priority in his communications strategy.”

On a page of its Web site called “Deep Listening,” TMG Strategies espouses a philosophy that would surely resonate with Paterno: “Although most companies today understand the importance of tracking and analyzing how they are portrayed by the news media, few stop to think about how their most important issues are playing out in popular culture and are thereby profoundly influencing potential jury pools and the outcome of their most pressing problems in the court of public opinion.”

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.