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He wrote a story, and got exposed

A libel suit over a Sports Illustrated story has turned up some details regarding the writer's work as a Florida lobbyist.

By LUCY MORGAN
Published July 31, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Legislature was in its chaotic final days on May 1, 2003, when Don Yaeger, a writer for Sports Illustrated, got a call from one of his editors.

The newspapers were filled with reports of a visit University of Alabama football coach Mike Price had made to a topless bar in Pensacola. The incident had been disclosed by Auburn fans on a Web site. Sports Illustrated wanted Yaeger to get the story behind the news.

The timing could not have been worse for Yaeger. For years he has attempted to balance his career as sportswriter and author with his other career: legislative lobbyist.

The 2003 legislative session was scheduled to end on May 2 and lawmakers had yet to pass a budget or deal with most of the other important issues of the session.

In the next four days, as he juggled the frantic pace of last-minute lobbying in Tallahassee, Yaeger put together a sensational story for his magazine. When he filed his story to his editors on May 5, he reported that Price had had sex in his hotel room with two women he picked up at a topless bar. The women screamed "Roll Tide!," the Alabama slogan, Yaeger wrote, and Price responded, "It's rolling, baby, it's rolling."

Those details, and how Yaeger says he got them, now are center stage in a $20-million libel case filed in Alabama by Price against Yaeger and Time Inc., the parent company of Sports Illustrated. But also emerging from the lawsuit - and creating a buzz in Tallahassee political circles - are details of Yaeger's close association with Jim King, who was Senate president in 2003, and of Yaeger's lucrative work as a lobbyist.

"My godfather is the Senate president," Yaeger explained as lawyers for Price grilled him during a deposition in October 2003.

Some notes that Yaeger took for his story were on King's letterhead, embossed with the seal of the Senate and the words "Office of the President." The notes are now Exhibit 6 in the libel suit.

Yaeger took the notes as he spoke with Alabama sports commentator Paul Finebaum during the final two days of the session while he waited outside King's office to talk to him.

King, no longer president but still in the Senate, says he is not Yaeger's godfather, but has been a close friend and father figure to the 42-year-old lobbyist. King was unaware of the note on his letterhead until contacted by the St. Petersburg Times last week.

"I've never given him any pads, but I have no reason to believe they weren't lying around and available," King said. "I knew in relationship to the story he was doing some things fairly quickly."

Yaeger's story said Price, a 57-year-old married man who had yet to coach a game at Alabama, had "some pretty aggressive sex" with topless dancers at a hotel in Pensacola in April 2003.

Much of the detail was attributed to an unnamed confidential source, the owner of Artey's Angels topless bar, and "Destiny," a dancer whose real name turned out to be Lori Boudreaux. Price was accused of paying $500 plus bonuses to the two women who allegedly went to his hotel room after meeting him at Artey's Angels.

Price denies having sex with anyone. He admits being in the topless bar and being in his hotel room with a woman. Under questioning by Sports Illustrated lawyers last year, Price said he was so inebriated he didn't realize a waitress from the bar accompanied him to his hotel. When asked if it was possible he had sex, Price said, "It's possible, but very unlikely," because he didn't have his Viagra medication with him.

Alabama fired Price on May 3, before the magazine hit newsstands.

Two weeks ago, a federal appeals court ruled that Sports Illustrated and Yaeger are not protected by an Alabama law that helps newspapers protect their confidential sources because the magazine is not a newspaper or broadcast outlet. The court said Price's lawyers are entitled to know who the confidential source is, but must first interview the four women involved in the Price allegations to see if they can discover his or her identity without forcing the magazine to disclose it.

Testimony from four topless dancers and others at the club is conflicting. Some witnesses say three women were in the hotel, others two. One woman says she was the only one in the room and did not have sex with Price.

* * *

For Yaeger, the libel suit was just the beginning of his problems.

Earlier this month, executives at Time Inc. told a Wall Street Journal reporter that Yaeger is no longer a lobbyist in Tallahassee. The executives said they directed Yaeger to stop lobbying after his name came up during a bribery investigation in 2000.

Lobbyists and lawmakers in Tallahassee are laughing at that claim. Yaeger remains one of the most visible lobbyists in town.

He is registered to lobby for about 25 clients. A dozen of them, including Danka and KPMG, list Yaeger as their only lobbyist.

Yaeger is also a member of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, which does not grant membership to nonlobbyists.

Yaeger's attorney, Gary Huckaby, says Time Inc. believes Yaeger is not engaged in active lobbying. Yaeger is registered as a lobbyist out of an abundance of caution because he owns a firm that hires other lobbyists, Huckaby said.

Late Friday, Yaeger issued a written statement to the Times: "For most of the past decade my first and foremost employer has been Sports Illustrated magazine. During some of that time, I have been an owner of several businesses, one of which is 180 Consulting. I am fortunate to have many outstanding people who work in that firm and carry out the day to day activities. None of these business activities . . . has ever interfered with or conflicted with my work for Sports Illustrated."

Late Saturday Yaeger said "a clerical mistake by a former employee" resulted in some members of his lobbying team not being registered. He said the mistake will be rectified immediately.

At other times, Yaeger has described himself as a lobbyist. When he filed to divorce his second wife in August 2004, Yaeger listed his occupation as "lobbyist."

Yaeger went to Mayo, the county seat of Lafayette County in rural north-central Florida, to get the divorce. He filed the paperwork, had a final hearing, and got Circuit Judge Harlow Land to seal the court file - all on the same day.

The Florida Supreme Court in 1988 refused to allow the summary sealing of such court files, and the Times earlier this year asked that Yaeger's divorce be unsealed.

In late May, it was. In a financial affidavit, Yaeger reported his monthly income at $48,000 and listed assets of $6.2-million. The affidavit does not mention work or income from Sports Illustrated.

When Yaeger and his first wife, Allison Tant, divorced in 1993, Yaeger listed his income at $4,833 a month and total assets at $209,250.

Curiously, when asked about his first marriage by Price's lawyers, Yaeger said he did not know what name Tant, a former lobbyist, now uses. She is married to Barry Richard, one of Florida's most prominent trial lawyers, and calls herself Allison Tant Richard.

* * *

Yaeger's friendship with King began when he moved to Tallahassee in 1987 to work for the Florida Times-Union, a Jacksonville newspaper. Jacksonville voters had just elected King, a Republican, to the Legislature.

The friendship ripened after Yaeger was fired by the Times-Union in 1990 for using company assets to research a book. Yaeger did some work for Chiles Communications, a company owned by Bud Chiles, son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles. When Chiles fired Yaeger over client charges, Yaeger turned to political consulting and started his lobbying business.

King said he realizes some corporations hired Yaeger because he could go into King's office "and frequently has a leg up on the competition." That's not unusual in Tallahassee, where lobbyists often trade on their relationships with governors and legislators.

Yaeger did take a break from lobbying in 2000 after his name surfaced in a federal bribery investigation. A health care executive from Missouri went to the FBI saying that Yaeger and another lobbyist boasted that they could rig a $24-million health care contract in return for fees of $1.2-million. Yaeger denied the allegations and was never charged with a crime, but he did get out of the lobbying business at the request of his superiors at Time Inc.

It didn't last. By 2002, Yaeger was again registered to lobby for two computer companies. He quadrupled his list of clients in 2003 and expanded the list when King took over as Senate president.

King said Yaeger lobbied him earlier this year for Keefe Commissary Network, a company that has a contract to supply canteens to the state's prisons.

King acknowledges that Yaeger has viewed him as a "father figure" and sends him Father's Day cards. The friendship has cooled over the past year because of Yaeger's divorce.

"We are not nearly as close as we were," King said. "When the marriage fell apart, a lot of us felt really uncomfortable. I said everybody needs to get a new set of friends."

[Last modified July 31, 2005, 01:33:10]


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