Republican activist Charley D. Price spent much of his Florida career working on behalf of veterans like himself.
Then one day last year, he saw a series of e-mails started by a Texan, who wrote: "Confirmed all falsifications of Charley Dale Price education. … The guy is indeed a fake."
Had Price bought his law degree from a diploma mill?
"My honor will not allow anyone to say that about me," Price said.
So Price, 77, sued. Now a band of brothers is waging an unusual legal battle in an Orlando court with Price, the veterans advocate, suing three Korean War veterans, and a fourth nonvet, for defamation.
Price said the men exchanged defamatory e-mails about his law degree to some of the 17,000 members of the Korean War Veterans Association, the largest group of its kind in the nation.
But this is not an ordinary defamation case to determine if false statements tarnished a reputation.
That's because even Price, adviser to the Korean vets association, acknowledges he is no lawyer. And he did get his law degree from a school effectively shut down by Kansas for granting worthless degrees.
The defendants say they are being sued for telling the truth.
"He's a phony," said Sam Naomi, 84, of Tingley, Iowa, one of the Korean veterans Price is suing. "He's misrepresenting himself. And now he's using the courts to keep us quiet."
All the men sued by Price live outside Florida. Of the four suits, one was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The rest await a trial not yet scheduled.
Not everything in Price's resume is disputed.
He is the former chairman of Florida Veterans for Rudy Giuliani and a 20-year military veteran. He also served from 2002 to 2006 as external affairs director for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
That position required no law degree, nor does Price's current standing as a state-certified mediator.
Price also is manager of American Eagle Veteran Contracting, a Florida company seeking construction work at both MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
Price's resume lists a law degree from the Monticello School of Law in Kansas. The degree also is listed on his job application at Veterans Affairs.
Price, who lives north of Orlando in De Bary, said in a brief interview last month he is not an attorney and never told anyone he is.
But he said Monticello was a legitimate school. He took classes with lawyers as instructors and completed exams, graduating by 2000, he said.
"I did two years of hard work," Price said. "I didn't just send a check to get a degree."
Price learned of Monticello in 1998 from an ad in USA Today.
But both Kansas and Hawaii later sued Monticello's founder, contending the school was operating without accreditation and lacked legal authority to grant degrees. Both states won default judgments in 1999 and 2000.
Kansas officials portrayed the school as a diploma mill that defrauded students, offering little or no meaningful instruction by a staff of four people, none of whom had legitimate law degrees.
"To the best of my knowledge, Monticello never required anything of its students other than a check or a credit card number," said John Baer, an expert on diploma mills who has worked with the FBI.
Baer questioned how any student could be fooled. "I always wonder with the so-called victims: Did they not have any clue whatsoever?" Baer said. "It's a one-minute due-diligence call to the state bar."
Price, who said he didn't know about the Kansas litigation, told the St. Petersburg Times his attorney would provide proof of the work Price did at Monticello, including exams he took.
But the attorney later refused to do so.
If Monticello were legitimate, Price's correspondence with the school suggests he never got his complete grades or a diploma.
In 1999 and 2000, Price repeatedly sought his grades after he said he mailed back exams completed in Florida, records show.
Price ultimately filed a consumer complaint with the state of Kansas saying he paid Monticello $4,657 for "instructional materials, teacher assistance and law degree (with) diploma."
He told the state he completed course work but wanted a refund if Monticello didn't provide a transcript and diploma.
After Kansas collected part of its judgment against Monticello, the state sent Price a check for $4,192.
Still, Price's resume lists the law degree, including one the Korean veterans group previously put on its Web site, along with one he gave to Florida for the state job.
Some members of the Korean veterans group say they thought Price was an attorney.
In a July 2004 board meeting of the association, a transcript shows the group's national director asking, "Charley Price is an attorney, too, isn't he?"
Dick Adams, the group's first vice president, said: "Oh, yes."
Byron Dickerson, an association official from 2004 to 2006 who said he also thought Price was a lawyer, said in an interview, "He was giving legal advice to the association."
The current president of the Korean veterans group, Bill Mac Swain, said the men Price sued are trying to destroy the group by defaming Price and have allegiance to a rival veterans group.
"It's a sad state of affairs," said Mac Swain, who insisted he never heard Price boasting about being a lawyer.
Bob Fuoco, 75, a Korean veteran who lives in Texas and still suffers severe post-traumatic stress disorder, said he can't afford a lawyer and fears Price's suit against him will ruin him.
"I went through hell in Korea," Fuoco said. "Now I'm going through hell again."