Time to judge

Rev. Henry Lyons' state fraud/racketeering trial opens in Pinellas this week. Judge Susan Schaeffer refused to relocate it, despite megapress coverage, explicitly acknowledging that many F Staters don't read all that much. Other developments: Co-defendant Bernice Edwards was charged with shoplifting designer sunglasses in Milwaukee in December, and a 1997 audio tape surfaced (perhaps inadmissible at trial) in which Lyons and Edwards are caught shaking down a Canadian funeral home company by repeatedly insisting there were 8.5 million National Baptist Convention members (when records indicate 15,000 tops).

Growing controversy

State judge Amy Steele Donner, Miami, OK'd a Florida racketeering lawsuit by 10 nursery operators against DuPont over the fungicide Benlate DF. DuPont recently slimed out of a federal trial in Georgia by making a cash grant of $11 million to state law schools in exchange for the prosecutor's total sellout, dropping all Benlate litigation nationwide. Five years ago, DuPont won these cases big, but then the company was found to have hidden or destroyed unfavorable scientific evidence, and now DuPont's a goner, if the victims can just get 'em to court, which Judge Donner has now ruled will happen.

Behind the scenes

On Day Number One, John Ellis Bush, surrounded by Bushes lesser and greater, held a private meeting with the heads of the House and Senate, ostensibly in violation of the state constitution, which Bush's staff carefully explained was not a violation by the 43rd governor, favoring the kind of technicalities routinely used by the 42nd president [of the United States].

Sharing good fortune

Fred Levin, whose Pensacola law firm is one of 11 sharing the $3.4 billion jackpot for negotiating Florida's settlement with Big Tobacco, and whose share is estimated at around $275 million, was praised in the most lavish terms by University of Florida for giving less than 4 percent of his award to his alma mater law school [hereinafter, the Levin College of Law]. Levin: "It was [at the law school] that I [found] I could be good at something." In 1990, Levin was reprimanded by the bar for admitting a passion for [illegally] betting on football games.

(Speaking of the tobacco settlement, can we all comprehend what it's like to do your regular day-to-day work, and then when it's over, get paid 90 times what you usually get for it? OK, so Levin assigned his lawyers to the tobacco case, at $250-$400 an hour, even for just planning and negotiating, not courtroom work; they fly around the state a few times; they pull some all-nighters; they run their numbers; they blow out a couple of Xerox machines; etc. You're still looking at a $3 million payout, at best, and you wind up with $275 million. Why, Kevin Garnett would have to play basketball for 14 years to earn that kind of money.)

Stuff you might have missed ...

• Two teen-age brothers in Hollywood, Fla., made national headlines for matter-of-factly attributing their proclivity for forcing sex on their 8-year-old half-sister to a "Jerry Springer" show they watched. Springer said the only incest on his show was among much older siblings. So far.

• The Florida Supremes argued about whether Joe Elton Nixon's still ripe for Ol' Sparky. In 1985, Nixon's Tallahassee lawyer conceded Nixon's guilt and saved his best arguments for the penalty phase, i.e., that Nixon was too insane to execute (e.g., he wouldn't enter the courtroom, perching on a toilet wearing only underwear, ranting about who knows what). Jury decision: life 2, death 10. But did Nixon "consent" to the lawyer's strategy? He might have been too crazy to consent to anything. On the other hand, though he didn't agree on the strategy in so many words, there is that audiotaped confession, on which Nixon yawns and chuckles about how he burned that woman to a crisp while she begged for mercy.

• Universal Studios (Orlando) Escape park was taking applications (postmarked by Jan. 11) for "[roller] coasterphobics" to undergo stress management, so Universal can help more people to go on the rides. Two Massachusetts anxiety-controllers will test people on the new Hulk Coaster (seven complete rollovers per ride) and the Dueling Dragons (in which two cars race toward each other at 60 mph and come, in Universal's words, "perilously close" to colliding).

• Alvin Keel, 55, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for possessing 383 endangered sea turtle eggs, which are apparently sold around bars in West Palm Beach for $1.50 as aphrodisiacs.

• Broward school superintendent Frank Petruzielo said, of course, that the reason why the average high school grade inched over 2.0 last year was the more rigorous standards he helped implement. Well, there was also the policy of permitting any student with a D or F to retake the course and get the second grade rather than the original, a loophole that 40 percent of last year's seniors took.

• I don't think so: The lawyer for a Clearwater couple charged with embezzling $4 million from a Wisconsin bank they owned from 1993-98: "When you're the owner of a bank, you may believe you are entitled to do things differently from someone who doesn't own the bank. Jeff [Dahlman] was the majority shareholder in the bank." Countered the lawyer for the company that bought the bank from Dahlman: "[Yeah, but] you can't just take the money."

• Vacationing Illinois judge Joan Corboy, 46, was crushed to death by the electric gate at her father's Naples condominium. Either she did something stupid, or the gate was not designed well. We'll have to wait and see on that because Corboy's father is regarded by many as the nation's pre-eminent personal-injury lawyer (Philip Corboy).

• More (alleged) criminals who should have kept lower profiles: Accused killer Pedro Hernandez-Alberto, who fled Hillsborough County, was stopped in Brookshire, Texas, when he looked away quickly and nervously as a cop passed by. And Jacob Christopher Bentley, 24, was arrested in Tallahassee with an assault rifle, a handgun, cocaine, and three pounds of marijuana on him after his car sideswiped a neighbor's parked car on the way home. Apparently Bentley thought nothing of it and just pulled into his parking space down the street, telltale fender scrapes and all.

Copyright 1998 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Chuck Shepherd, who lives in St. Petersburg, also writes the syndicated newspaper column News of the Weird.

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