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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. July 2, 2004
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Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Sex and the court of public opinion

Tampa attorney David Russell Stahl is looking at prison and disbarment after a Hillsborough County jury last month found him guilty of having sex with a 14-year-old girl in his law office in 1999.

In keeping with the defendant's offbeat personality (see "Russ Stahl Is Different," GCBR, April 16-22), the four-day trial was a strange melodrama.

Stahl tried at the outset of the oft-delayed trial to fire another defense lawyer. But Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman went ahead with the proceeding.

The defense lawyer, Buddy Gissendanner, later requested an emergency examination of his client's mental fitness in the middle of the trial. Stahl passed and the trial continued. His son was jailed for contempt after proclaiming Stahl's innocence to the jury, without prompting.

The Stahl courtroom circus may be a preview of what might happen if another developing sex case ever goes to trial. While the Stahl jury was deliberating, police were closing in on Tampa teacher Debra Beasley Lafave, who has since been charged with having sex at her school and other places with a 14-year-old male student.

The local news media were mildly interested in the Stahl case. But the national media are lining up for their shot at giving Lafave's legal entanglement prominent play across the country.

Coffee Talk happened the other day to drop by the downtown Tampa law office of John Fitzgibbons, who has taken up Lafave's cause. Before assisting us, the receptionist was heard to ask a caller for Fitzgibbons: "And what network were you from?"

Here we go.

The news coverage and public reaction toward the two cases could present an interesting sociological study in this TV age. Will a jowly 61-year-old man who takes carnal advantage of a teen get treated differently from a 23-year-old woman with better skin tone who does the same thing?

Stahl already has complained about unequal justice. A physician and a fellow lawyer charged in the same investigation that nabbed Stahl got probation.

Sentencing for Stahl is scheduled for next month on the felony conviction, which he is appealing. He faces a possible 15 years in prison. Plus, there is a second trial in his future, as yet unscheduled, on charges that he had sex with a 13-year-old girl.

First impressions

It looks like 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington made a good impression during her first appearance before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. President George W. Bush recently appointed her to fill a vacancy in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida.

Covington earned positive comments last month not only from committee Chairman Orin Hatch, R-Utah, but also from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

Twenty-seven bottles

Tampa trial lawyer Steve Yerrid reached deep into the past for a telling anecdote about former colleague John F. Germany at the Hillsborough County Bar Association's recent installation ceremony. The association honored Germany, a retired founding partner of Holland & Knight LLP, on June 28 as its 2004 Lawyer of the Year. It's an honor Yerrid won a year ago.

While employed at Holland & Knight, Yerrid recalled how Germany assigned him in 1980 to defend John Lerro against a state inquiry into his role as pilot of the freighter that struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The accident resulted in the deaths of 35 people.

"After we won, about a month later, the University Club sent out a bill," Yerrid said. "I got called into John's corner office.

"He said, 'Somebody on Christmas Eve,' that was the night we got the decision, 'somebody signed my name for 27 bottles of Dom Perignon champagne,' " Yerrid recalled. " 'This bill is for $900. I want to know what you know about these 27 bottles of Dom Perignon.' "

Keenly aware of Germany's reputation as an honorable, ethical lawyer, Yerrid decided to explain exactly what happened. " 'No, John, I can't tell you about the 27 bottles of Dom Perignon. I can tell you about the first five.'

"He smiled," Yerrid recalled, "and a friendship of admiration was born and endured."

Local banks, capital banker get disrespected

Three young Bradenton banks are still on a Weiss Ratings Inc. roster of weak financial institutions. But it could be worse. Their leaders could have been on another list of the most overpaid chief executives in America banking.

Weiss, an evaluator of financial services companies based in Jupiter, studied the performance of 8,225 U.S. banks and thrifts, as of Dec. 31. Weiss declined to recommend a single one of our local banks. But it did call Coast Bank of Florida, Flagship National Bank and Horizon Bank the weakest in the area. They were all graded D-minus.

None of the trio has been around more than five years or so. The Weiss system tends to discriminate against those banks. Weiss wants to see a minimum of five years of sustained profitability. Coast, Flagship and Horizon aren't quite there yet. (Among the more established, Florida Community Bank in Immokalee was downgraded from a C to a D.)

In the meantime, SNL Financial was linking executive pay to institutional performance at publicly traded banks and thrifts with more than $5 billion in assets. The Charlottesville, Va., research firm found a few folks wanting.

Robert L. Allbritton at Riggs Bank, for example. The holding company for the Washington, D.C., institution, formerly known as "the bank of presidents," got fined $25 million by regulators for violating the Bank Secrecy Act. But that didn't stop CEO Allbritton from collecting $2.1 million in 2003.


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