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Suit over fliers brings $6-million

A former Florida Blue Key member is ordered to pay for defaming a former UF student body president candidate.

By MATTHEW BOEDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- An Alachua County jury on Tuesday ordered former Florida Blue Key member Peter Vlcek to pay $6-million in damages for defaming a former University of Florida graduate student by making him look like a child molester.

Charles Grapski, the former UF student body presidential candidate who was the subject of defamatory fliers in the 1995 spring elections, broke out in tears after learning of the verdict from jurors. He had left the courthouse to grab a bagel at a coffee shop.

"He said the numbers and I said, "Huh?' " Grapski said afterward.

Grapski said his legal victories should send a message to UF.

"They actually condone campaigns of the candidates of student government by a very ruthless, self-interested elite who don't care about the good of the students, the good of the university or the good of the community," he said.

The jury awarded him $1-million for compensatory damages and $5-million for punitive damages.

One of Grapski's lawyers, UF law professor Joe Little, had asked in his closing argument for $150,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. After the verdict, Robert Widman, another of Grapski's attorneys, seemed overwhelmed by the money awarded his client.

"I've never heard of a defamation verdict like that," Widman said. "That jury was trying to tell somebody something."

"We found it was disturbing that someone would do something like that to someone," said juror Michael Milek.

Vlcek, 43, was not present at the two-day trial. Widman said Vlcek, a former UF law student, claimed the reason for his absence was that his brother was sick and he had no car to get from his home in Jacksonville.

The verdict ends a four-year legal battle that Grapski, now a graduate student in England, brought against Florida Blue Key, former UF student body president John McGovern and Vlcek.

All three parties have now been found civilly liable for posting the doctored fliers that used Florida Department of Law Enforcement records on Grapski with false convictions.

The fliers falsely stated that Grapski had been arrested for child molestation, public exposure and lewd and lascivious conduct. The fliers correctly stated that Grapski had been arrested for driving under the influence more than two decades ago.

Florida Blue Key settled with Grapski for $85,000, without admitting liability. McGovern is appealing the $80,000 judgment he's been ordered to pay.

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