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Lyons' attorneys are a diverse trio

By CRAIG PITTMAN

©St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 1997


ST. PETERSBURG -- As the Rev. Henry J. Lyons spoke Wednesday, he was flanked by all three of the lawyers he has hired to deal with the continuing investigations by state and federal authorities and the inquiries of a host of reporters.

On one end of the crowd of people standing behind Lyons was Anthony S. Battaglia, stiff but resplendent in a gray jacket with a red show handkerchief.

On the other end stood Denis de Vlaming, in shirt sleeves, his hawk-like face somber except when he winked at reporters he knew.

And at center stage, introducing Lyons, was the nattily dressed Grady Irvin, who has been the minister's primary spokesman.

Although all three are members of the Florida Bar, they are hardly cut from the same cloth.

Battaglia, 70, a 1953 graduate of the University of Florida Law School, directed the Tampa office of the U.S. attorney from 1953 to 1956. Later he organized an Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association to allow current and former federal prosecutors to socialize outside the courtroom.

Since going into private practice, he has represented plenty of high-profile clients, including former U.S. Rep. Richard Kelly, former Pasco County Sheriff John Short and former Pinellas County Commissioner A. Oliver McEachern.

Short, accused of official misconduct and unlawful compensation, was cleared of all criminal charges. Kelly was convicted of bribery in the so-called Abscam scandal, and McEachern was convicted of political corruption and served time in prison.

Now a member of the Florida Bar's Board of Governors, Battaglia does not confine his practice to criminal court. His listed specialties are business litigation and real estate law.

When Calvin Harris, a Democrat, became the first black person appointed to the Pinellas County Commission, he credited Battaglia -- an active Republican -- with urging him to get involved in local civic affairs.

His law firm, Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein, has about 20 lawyers, with offices in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Lakeland. Among the firm's most recent hires is Robert Jagger, who virtually created the job of public defender and held that post for 35 years in Pinellas County.

De Vlaming's entire experience has been in state court and criminal law. Like Battaglia, the 50-year-old de Vlaming is a former prosecutor who parlayed that training into a thriving practice as a defense lawyer.

Unlike Battaglia's practice, though, de Vlaming's Clearwater law firm basically consists of de Vlaming. Yet de Vlaming, a graduate of Stetson University's College of Law, has had his share of high-profile clients.

He successfully defended former U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle against a charge of battery stemming from a traffic dispute.

He has represented a variety of local officials, including former Belleair Shore Mayor Bob Clayton, former Largo Police Chief Rick Kistner and St. Pete Beach Commissioner Saranan Lauck.

And he has nearly made a specialty of handling the cases of teachers accused of wrongdoing.

For John Bence, charged with 16 counts of capital sexual battery, de Vlaming persuaded prosecutors to drop the charges. For Rik McNeill, accused of fondling a police officer, he won an acquittal. For Larry Allison, accused of exposing himself, he convinced a judge to toss out the whole case.

De Vlaming is well-known and well-liked among his colleagues, in part because he is so willing to share his expertise. He even prepares a summary of the latest appellate decisions and reports on those cases at the monthly meetings of the Pinellas County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Like de Vlaming, Irvin is also a Stetson graduate. But Irvin, 33, was unknown among the local defense bar when he first began acting as Lyons' official spokesman in July. And unlike both of his veteran colleagues, he had been a member of Florida Bar for just three years.

Irvin has specialized mostly in representing sports clients such as former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe. When Dallas Cowboys cornerback Clayton Holmes flunked a urinalysis, Irvin made headlines by suing the National Football League to overturn its drug-testing policy.

And Irvin has spent years working with Tampa lawyer Tony Cunningham on what may turn out to be the largest sports-related court case ever: Frank Morsani's multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Major League Baseball over Morsani's failed efforts to acquire a team for Tampa Bay.

Until he was hired by Lyons, Irvin said several months ago, "I thought that would be the biggest case of my life."


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