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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. August 20, 2004
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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

False light

Dennis Hernandez suspected he had a problem with the onslaught of angry phone callers. He knew he had a problem when a client demanded the return of a $25,000 retainer. It appears neither the callers nor the client liked a WFLA, Channel 8, televisions news story about Hernandez's opposition to a Tampa sign variance application.

Now the trial lawyer says the station and two reporters defamed him and cast him in a false light over the news coverage they devoted to the variance sought by Sam's Golden Triangle Film Lab Inc. The fifth-generation Tampa resident is seeking unspecified damages in Hillsborough circuit court. On July 26, Hernandez sued the TV station and its parent, Media General Inc., along with news reporters Stacie Schaible and Jeff Patterson.

The dispute emerged last year when a neighboring law firm, apparently unaffiliated with Dennis Hernandez & Associates PA, filed a complaint with the city against the small, film-processing business. The film processor apparently erected a large sign on its property, 3401 W. Kennedy Blvd., which was too close to a traffic intersection. In July 2003, Hernandez voiced his opinion against the application at a Tampa Variance Review Board meeting.

The board agreed with Hernandez, along with other opponents, and rejected the film processor's application. Earlier this year, the film processor lost an appeal over the matter.

Hernandez claims the TV station aired false statements in a Feb. 16 newscast that cast the dispute as a small-business person fighting a lone battle against two law firms. He also took exception to a statement that claimed his firm's sign wasn't too dissimilar in size to the film processor's.

In the complaint, he expressed dismay at an edited statement purportedly. The report recorded him from a public meeting as saying, "¦the arguments made by the person seeking the variance are really a shell game." He says the TV station took that comment out of context.

"The true news story, albeit not much of a television ratings draw, should have reported that (the) city of Tampa was correctly enforcing its codes," the lawsuit states.

It's uncertain how the TV station intends to defend itself against the allegations, since WFLA General Manager Eric Land says, "We don't comment on ongoing litigation."

Judge's order

When the judge says go, well, that's pretty much the end of it. That's the edict Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer gave her husband, Frank Fleischer, a GrayRobinson attorney, when officials ordered the evacuation of high-risk areas as Hurricane Charley bore down on the Gulf Coast. The couple lives on Harbour Island, an island susceptible to storm surges.

Just as many families, the Fleischers took refuge inland. The couple rented a hotel room in north Tampa. "My wife forced me out of my home," he laments. "I was homeless."

This is a busy time for Fleischer, a public finance lawyer. He just helped the Orlando Utilities Commission close on a $30 million bond issue. That money should help offset some of the damage the hurricane caused to the utility's power line network. Thousands of Orlando-residents were still without power five days after the hurricane's landfall. Earlier this year Fleischer also helped Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state's public-private windstorm insurer of last resort, close on a $750 million bond offering - obviously, a timely deal.

Dailies like Ambler

What did Bill Bunkley expect from the liberal media?

The Carrollwood mortgage broker is running to the Christian Right of state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, and the Tampa Bay area's leading daily newspapers are providing little comfort.

Bunkley isn't a trial lawyer. That fact on his resume has endeared Bunkley to physician groups and insurance companies that detest Ambler's unwillingness to cap fees on himself and other members of the plaintiff's bar. (See "The Target," GCBR, Aug. 6-12.)

But editorial writers aren't so fond of Bunkley.

The St. Petersburg Times came out for Ambler on Aug. 18. No surprise there. The Times is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy, according to regular writers of published letters to its editor.

But Bunkley also got the shaft from endorsement pundits at The Tampa Tribune, where a usually dependable conservative voice is moderating under a new editorial page chief.

"Ambler, an outspoken lawyer and independent thinker, is a fiscal conservative who prefers less government and supports personal responsibility," the Tribune opined a bit apologetically on Aug. 15.

The warm words were earned by Ambler last spring when he and other Republican lawyers told Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, where to put a proposal to limit legal fees in medical malpractice lawsuits - in the circular file.

Tribune editorialists have viewed Byrd with some contempt since he called his colleagues "sheep" during a chat with them before the 2004 legislative session. They took the unusual step of proclaiming well before this election year's endorsement season that Byrd shouldn't expect their blessing as he tries to move up to the U.S. Senate.

The Tribune-Byrd estrangement appears to be all to Ambler's benefit.

The Times was somewhat less enthusiastic about its choice for the House District 47 Republican primary on Aug. 31. "If anything, Ambler has been too conservative for the northwest Hillsborough district," the paper's recommendation read. "His support for raising telephone rates and expanding public records exemptions are examples of his toeing the party line instead of legislating judiciously."

So, take your pick.

Ambler is either a courageous statesman whose penance for bucking an ideologue like Byrd is a re-election challenge from the starboard side in his own party's primary. Or he's the less odious choice against another ideologue who also will take dictation from the doctor/insurer lobby.

Happy voting.

ETC ¦.

× Attorneys Charles D. Bavol and William J. Judge Jr. recently formed their own downtown Tampa firm Bavol Judge PA. Bavol was formerly with Bavol Bush Graziano & Rice PA. Judge was also with Bavol Bush Graziano prior to forming the new firm.


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