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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 28, 2003 15 years ago

Legal Team

Two Pinellas County attorneys, Frank Louderback and Pat Doherty, are involved in Tampa's most recent corruption scandal.

Legal Team

Two Pinellas County attorneys, Frank Louderback and Pat Doherty, are involved in Tampa's most recent corruption scandal.

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

When Steve and Lynne LaBrake finally get their day in court, they will be counseled by two attorneys who jokingly refer to themselves as Laurel and Hardy.

U.S. Magistrate Thomas McCoun III appointed his former law partner, Frank Louderback, to represent Lynne LaBrake; and Pat Doherty to represent Steve LaBrake, after the former Tampa housing chief and his wife were arrested Nov. 20 on multiple charges of corruption, including bribery and conspiracy.

The LaBrakes are charged with orchestrating and accepting a series of bribes to get their two-story, 4,200-square foot home built for a remarkably low $120,000 in South Tampa. When the two worked for the city, Steve LaBrake served as the city's business and housing chief. Lynne McCarter was his assistant before becoming his wife. Charged as co-conspirators are Chet Luney, former head of the nonprofit Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan who allegedly paid LaBrake thousands in cash and favors in return for city contracts; Dean Ryan, the contractor who built the LaBrake dream house - and accepted millions in city contracts; and Lori Horne, a USF Federal Credit Union loan officer who arranged several loans that enabled the LaBrakes to receive land through state and federal housing programs.

Prosecutor Robert O'Neill of the U.S. Attorney's Office is prosecuting the government's case.

The paths of Louderback and Doherty, who will be paid about $90 an hour by the federal government for their defense of the LaBrakes, have been crossing for more than 30 years. Most recently, they briefly helped defend former USF professor and suspected terrorist Sami Al-Arian, who faces federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy to murder. Louderback handled Al-Arian's defense for about three months - also at McCoun's request - before the professor asked to represent himself. (Al-Arian is now counseled by Washington, D.C., attorney William B. Moffitt.) Doherty, who represented a non-commissioner during the 1980s Hillsborough County Commission corruption case, helped with the Al-Arian case because his law partner, Jeff Brown, was the other court-appointed attorney.

"It was a comic relief to have (Doherty) involved with that," Louderback says. Ultimately, the Al-Arian case was such a hassle that Louderback told his assistant not to accept any more court appointed federal cases.

However, he took the LaBrake case for a chance to work with Doherty again, he says.

"I don't need the experience, and I certainly need much experience at ninety bucks an hour, but for the right case, it's a challenge and worthwhile - and for the opportunity to hook up with Pat again. We're like Laurel and Hardy."

Not to mention the free publicity.

Finding humor on the job is something of a sub-specialty for the pair.

In the late 1980s, the two were representing different defendants through a joint defense agreement when they read in the newspaper that one of their co-counsel had been Baker-acted over the weekend. That same morning, they saw the supposedly ill attorney getting off of the elevator at the end of the long courthouse hall.

Says Doherty: "So Frank grabs me, and says, 'If this guy says, "You're not going to believe what they did to me this weekend," We're fine.' (Instead) the guy walks all the way down the hallway. He says, 'Hi guys,' and walks into the courtroom. Frank says, 'We're sooo screwed.' "

Outside the courtroom, they're all laughs. In front of the jury, they're serious about their craft.

Of his friend, Louderback says, "He's a brilliant, story-telling, entertaining person. ¦ He projects that to the jury, that he's very entertaining, which is 90% of the case anyway. Let's face it, in criminal law, the facts are against you so bad. Unless you can put perfume on the pig or get the jury to like you, and by extension to like your client, you're going to have a bad time of it. It looks like he's not going to get up and be a ferocious kind of guy but he has a style that works well, almost a folksy kind of thing."

Doherty says, "My experience is this, a jury will forgive any of the obvious faults I have, but if I don't fight for my clients, they won't forgive me that. They will overlook every ineptitude I'm capable of, but they will not overlook a failure to fight for your client."

Of Louderback, Doherty says, "Frank is very comical outside of court, and very business-like in court. He's tenacious."

Louderback and Doherty have slightly different expectations for the duration of the LaBrake representation. Doherty estimates the case will take six months to a year.

"You can't prove a negative," he says. "All you can do is show it inferentially from other evidence. And that's what you end up spending your time doing, running down things that might show inferentially that your client is innocent."

Louderback says the whole thing might take as little as a month, although he's the first to say that Tampa juries are unpredictable.

"From this side of the bay, we look at Hillsborough and Tampa as some kind of quagmire of crooked politicians and hand shakes and all kinds of things going on," he says. "I don't know what a jury is going to think about it.

"When they had the county commissioners' case, I think they convicted two of them. If you stood back and looked at them, you'd say, that's no way to run a business, but jurors obviously felt like, 'This is the way we do business over here - it's Tampa.' "

Adds Louderback, "From what I picked up in the media, Greco got banged around all over the place. He's just one of those guys who said, 'This man was my friend. I support him. I feel sorry for him. Maybe he made a mistake but I'm not going to ruin his life over that.' It's an incredible way of doing business but it's the way. It's just the Tampa way. Who's the government to say they're bad people?"

Both say their clients deny the charges against them.

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