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They're here for our food, sights, infamous teacher

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By SUE CARLTON, Times Columnist
Published August 23, 2006

So guess who I saw moseying into the darkened lobby of Tampa's famous Bern's Steak House Monday night.

No, not the Republicans who were being feted around town like rock stars - well-groomed rock stars, maybe, who think a lot about family values - by lovestruck hometown boosters hoping to woo them here for their 2008 convention. No, the RNC guys were over at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, dining on filet mignon Chacho and mojitos.

Instead, into Bern's wood-and-velvet lobby walked an unassuming Matt Lauer of the Today show, fresh from the airport. Waiting for him was his dining companion for the evening, Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons.

And which of Fitzgibbons' newsmaking clients brought the likes of Lauer to town?

Bet you can guess.

Fascination apparently has not waned on the subject of Debra Lafave, the blue-eyed blond middle school teacher who made news around the world for having sex with a 14-year-old student. Attention was so intense, in fact, it helped influence a plea deal so the boy could get away from the spotlight and on with his life.

Next month, Lafave will be the subject of an hour-long Dateline special, which Fitzgibbons said will deal in part with bipolar disorder.

Lafave is on house arrest and had to get permission from a judge to attend the taping at a downtown hotel Tuesday. As part of her plea deal, she's not allowed to make money from the celebrity that came from her crimes.

Speaking of celebrity, Lauer had a nice steak, toured the kitchen and shook hands with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer, who happened to be at the next table. Not that we high-minded, nontabloid types care about such things.

For more on Lafave, see page 4B.

* * *

Speaking of the RNC committee's visit to Tampa this week, one happy-face statistic raised an eyebrow with me. There's only a 2 percent chance, they said, that a hurricane would hit the Tampa Bay area.

Hmm.

I called Larry Gispert, Hillsborough's straight-shooting emergency manager, the guy always haranguing us to get ready already. Gispert was there for the pitch with information on our hurricane preparedness. "We would normally not have been in the program, because, as you know, that's a negative aspect of our community," Gispert said.

Yes, he told me, 2 percent is accurate - for those few days in early September when the convention would be here. But things ratchet up later in September and into October. "We historically have late-season storms," he said.

Great.

Gispert also had this: chances of getting hit by a hurricane during the convention in New York, one of the other cities in the running, would be 1.7 percent, about the same as ours.

Cleveland and Minneapolis? Let's just say they're probably not worried on that front.

* * *

No, public transportation isn't getting 73-year-old Louise Payich across town to see her daughter just yet.

Mrs. Payich lives in downtown St. Petersburg and gets around on a motorized scooter. I recently wrote about her after she was denied the services of PSTA's special vehicles for the disabled.

PSTA officials said she could ride the regular bus to see her daughter, who has cancer and is in hospice care in Pinellas Park. But Mrs. Payich says she doesn't believe she can maneuver her scooter on the regular bus because of shoulder surgery. (She also has arthritis in her spine and legs and can't wear shoes because of another medical condition.)

After her daughter got worse, she reapplied for Demand Response Transportation, or Dart.

People who read about Mrs. Payich wrote and called to offer rides. She was touched, but says she doesn't want to put anyone out until she's tried everything.

Last Saturday, she got a letter again denying her application for Dart services. But this week, PSTA will send over a "ride trainer" to see if they can make the regular bus work for her.

"I told him I'd try it," Mrs. Payich said. "I'm willing to try anything."

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 00:16:23]


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