Norman Siegel on the phone-hacking case against Murdoch in the U.S.

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Norman Siegel. (Thomas Good/NLN)
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Local civil-liberties lawyer and frequent public advocate candidate Norm Siegel denied a report published on Law.com by a Legal Week reporter today that he and London attorney Mark Lewis are set to file a class-action lawsuit this week against Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

"That's not from my mouth," Siegel told Capital today. "I didn't make those comments."

The news broke Friday that the London attorney, who represents a group of clients in the U.K. phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed Murdoch's British business, had retained Siegel to see whether there was a basis to pursue litigation against News Corp. in the U.S. on behalf of his clients.

Siegel said he had spoken to Lewis earlier in the day and that he is "reviewing some of the papers in the London case," but that there's nothing new to report.

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"Some of the stuff that's out there with regard to the timetable is inaccurate," said Siegel, reiterating what he told us late last week: "I'm not committed to any timeline because I first have to find out whether or not the options are viable."

"The focus is one on pre-action discovery," he said today, "where you can get documents and taped depositions prior to filing a lawsuit, in addition to looking at anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws to see whether violations of any federal or state laws have occurred."

The conventional wisdom in New York media circles has been that the phone-hacking scandal is unlikely to wash ashore on this side of the Atlantic. But Lewis' hiring of Siegel and another prominent Manhattan attorney, Steven Hyman, seems likely to test the proposition more quickly than any of the promised U.S. government inquiries.

"I have been asked by Mr. Lewis to explore any and all New York state legal options that could exist pertaining to the phone hacking within News Corp.," Siegel said on Friday.

"We’re trying to match the facts with regard to his clients in London to the legal statutes in New York," he said. "We know that people in London from News of the World hacked into his clients' phones. The question becomes, did News Corp. people in New York know? Were they aware of it? Did they partiicpate? Did they sanction it?"

A News Corp. spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

"It could be, since The New York Post is a part of News Corp., they could be in there," Siegel said.

(That's regarded by most in New York media to be the least likely grounds for a U.S. case. As one former Post gossip reporter has put it: "They couldn’t hack an electric toothbrush.”)

But there are perhaps other avenues to pursue.

It's hard to imagine, for one thing, that the former News of the World Hollywood editor arrested last month in connection with the scandal would have restricted himself purely to England-dwelling celebrities had he committed any hacking of his own, no?

"If there are hypothetically some people in Hollywood who got hacked and they get in touch with Lewis or us, we’ll look at that," said Siegel. "The questions you're raising are all things we’ll be looking at. We’ll go one step at a time. Right now, what we have to do is read the cases and interperet the New York and federal laws in order to then have a good understanding of what the criteria is to bring actions here for people in London."

Not that these are typical Norm Siegel clients.

More immediate to Siegel's mission is to catch up with the U.S. Attorney General to see what's happening with the investigation into whether News of the World hacked the phones of victims and victims' families after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

That allegation, which hasn't gained much credence, has only surfaced in a thinly-sourced July 11 report in another U.K. tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

But Siegel has been retained separately by 20 families of 9/11 victims. Siegel and some of those family members met with attorney general Eric Holder and representatives from the F.B.I. on Aug. 24; Holder has promised a preliminary investigation into whether 9/11 victims or their family members were targeted by News of the World. But Siegel has yet to hear back, and pointed out that there is so far no evidence to his knowledge that the hacking even happened. He's following up this week.

If the 9/11-hacking claim does have merit, Lewis and Siegel's cases could become conjoined.

"If we are addressing the confirmed hacking of Lewis' clients," he said, "what we learn on that front might have some bearing on the allegations [concerning] the 9/11 family members."

Siegel would not elaborate on one element of the report in Legal Week, which suggested that the basis of the class-action suit will ultimately be alleged violation by News Corp. (an American entity) of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which allows the prosecution of corporate entities that prohibits bribing foreign public officials to gain or retain business. (In England, a part of the phone-hacking investigation concerns whether officers of the Metropolitan Police were paid by News International, an English subsidiary of News Corp., to slow-walk or suppress evidence that would show the company condoned or facilitated illegal phone-hacking.)

"I'm in an exploratory phase, doing the research," he said. "I’m not prepared to spell out every nuance of all these different aspects."

Columbia University law professor John Coffee tells NPR's David Folkenflik that News Corp. "has pretty much assembled a dream team of all-star foreign corrupt practice litigators" as a preemptive measure.