Tampa Bay area lawyer hypes flamboyant cases

Love him or hate him, you see this local lawyer in the news. A lot.

By William R. Levesque, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

TAMPA -- Lawyer John Trevena says he knows how to sell a story.

Sex helps, like the detective sleeping with the victim in a fraud case. The absurd frequently works, like the Largo man arrested for wearing a baseball cap with the letters "LAPD."

But videotape is golden.

So when Trevena saw a videotape of a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy dumping a quadriplegic out of his wheelchair, he knew media attention would be enormous. Trevena now represents that man and three others whose cases have become the subject of a jail investigation.

It's the latest in a decade of bizarre and otherworldly cases that endlessly find their way to the Largo office of one of the most high-profile and media-friendly attorneys in the Tampa Bay area.

For the lawyer who drives a Porsche 911 Turbo and owns a $200,000 boat, some would say playing the media card is lucrative. But Trevena's critics are legion, from prosecutors to attorneys and police.

The wheelchair story was broken by WTSP-Ch. 10. Trevena then whipped up the media attention.

"I have a pretty good sense of what's going to sell," Trevena said Wednesday. "I don't want to sound cocky. But sometimes I can predict how a story will play out better than the reporters themselves."

It isn't just local reporters that seek out Trevena. He has appeared on Good Morning America, Today, Court TV, CNN, 48 Hours.

Detractors say he can harm his clients' chances of getting a favorable plea deal from irritated prosecutors. Some accuse him of self-promotion.

"His clients want someone to rattle the cage, to throw boxes and stones around," said Tampa lawyer Nick Mooney, a former prosecutor who has faced Trevena in court.

"I don't always agree that that's the best thing to do in a case," he said. "The last thing in the world you want is to tick off a prosecutor. But John has been doing it for 20 years. And he's feeding his family. So he must be doing something right."

Trevena says publicity pressures authorities to do the right thing. "I look at publicity as a way to right a wrong," he said.

In the wheelchair case, Trevena's client, Brian Sterner, got an apology from Sheriff David Gee. A felony charge was filed against the deputy. Six people came forward with tales of jail abuse.

"The best reason for publicity," Trevena said, "is that it encourages other people to come forward who might otherwise remain silent."

A Google search of Trevena's name reveals a list of clients that would delight any daytime talk show host:

Ever the news magnet, Trevena, 46, can find himself in the middle of a story by accident.

In 2003 he was visiting his dying sister in Morton Plant Hospital. Who should be wheeled in the room across the hall? Terri Schiavo, her feeding tube just reinserted. Trevena called a reporter with details.

Trevena has improbable allies.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt Downey was so angered by what Trevena once said about him to reporters that the judge recused himself from hearing any of the lawyer's cases.

After he retired last year, Downey referred a case to Trevena.

"Sometimes the publicity he creates is an irritant," said Downey. "Certainly having a good relationship with prosecutors and sheriff is important. John never cared about that."

Former Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice often got bad press from Trevena.

Now Rice practices law and frequently refers cases to Trevena on police misconduct.

"He's a good lawyer who does a good job," said Rice. "A lawyer speaking out about his client is one of our great First Amendment freedoms."

Trevena himself has been on the sharp end of bad publicity.

In 1987, he ran for Pinellas sheriff. He dropped out when the Times reported he was accused of bragging about sexual exploits with female colleagues while a Hillsborough prosecutor. He was forced to resign from that job.

Trevena denied the charge.

In 1995, he and his wife opened the first full-service clinic in the nation dedicated to the "fen/phen" weight-loss medications.

After initial success, Trevena filed for bankruptcy. "That taught me a lesson to stick with what I know and do well -- the law," he said in 1999.

Kenneth "Big Daddy" Ellis, a Dunedin man once called by prosecutors the "Frank Nitty" of the local mob, loves Trevena.

Charged with racketeering and drug trafficking, Ellis faced life in prison. Trevena convinced a judge to give Ellis house arrest and probation.

Fearing reporters would drive the judge to issue a harsh sentence, Trevena didn't tell anyone of the sentencing.

"The man is a magician," said Ellis, who denies mob ties. "I know a lot of cops and prosecutors don't like him. Too bad. He's not afraid of anybody."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3436.


John Harry Trevena