Charley D. Price says his is a sterling reputation hard earned.
He was Gov. Jeb Bush's choice to be external affairs director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs from 2002 to 2006. He is a decorated Vietnam veteran and a certified family mediator.
But as Price pursues a defamation lawsuit against four men he accuses of smearing his reputation with trash talk about his law degree, an uncomfortable fact has emerged from Price's past:
In 1978, Maryland prosecutors charged him with a first-degree, felony sex offense that carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Price, manager of a company that sought construction work at MacDill Air Force Base and Bay Pines VA Medical Center, said he was exonerated.
Prosecutors disagree, noting that a judge issued an arrest warrant against Price after he failed to appear in court. Price was never brought to trial.
An attorney for his ex-wife told a judge he fled to Europe.
To the men Price is suing, it's all a puzzle: Why file a defamation suit, they ask, with this charge lurking?
"It's a defamation case," said Hal Barker, 61, a Dallas resident being sued by Price. "It's like throwing your arms wide and saying, 'You get to know everything about me. Here I am,' "
Price, 77, who lives in De Bary, north of Orlando, doesn't see it that way. The charge was false, he was never convicted and he was fully cleared, Price insists.
"That was totally wiped out and settled," Price said in a telephone interview. "It was erroneous. You're digging and you're digging and you're digging. Don't dig anymore. I can't be trying this in the paper."
Price doesn't think the sex charge is relevant to the defamation lawsuits he has filed against the four men, three of whom are elderly Korean War veterans, in an Orlando court.
Price says the men, among other things, defamed him by saying his law degree was bogus. Price and the men were involved in the Korean War Veterans Association, a group Price formerly advised.
Price, who said he worked hard for his degree, received it from a correspondence school in Kansas that authorities in that state closed after calling it a diploma mill without accreditation or legal authority to grant degrees.
Barker, the only nonveteran among the men sued, said Price's reputation and background are open to inspection as part of the defamation suit.
This is what records from Maryland show:
On Nov. 22, 1977, a 22-year-old Anne Arundel County, Maryland, woman accused Price of sexually assaulting her. On Jan. 30, 1978, police charged Price with a first-degree sexual offense. He was released after posting $2,000 bail.
On Oct. 5, 1978, Price failed to appear in court. A judge revoked bail and issued an arrest warrant.
Documents detailing the accusation are unavailable. But a Dec. 8, 1977, article discovered by Barker in a Maryland newspaper, the Evening Capital, noted that police reports accused Price of luring the woman to his condo via a classified newspaper ad.
Once she arrived, the woman said Price forced her to engage in a sex act, the Evening Capital reported.
In an interview, Price acknowledged he had been charged. But he denied wrongdoing. He said he had never heard of the alleged victim and police never explained why he was charged. He said police were mistaken.
The woman, who is not named in this story because of the nature of the charge, could not be located by the Times. Police officials declined to comment.
Price said he was exonerated.
"That is not true," said Kristin Fleckenstein, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County State's Attorney's Office in Maryland.
In 1999, Price hired an attorney and had his file expunged, which Fleckenstein said sealed criminal case documents from public view. Prosecutors did not object to the action.
Fleckenstein said Price's lawyer failed to send the approved order expunging his records to her office. So when the St. Petersburg Times and Barker asked for records, they were released, she said.
Fleckenstein said expunging the file was not an exoneration, as Price claims. She declined to say if prosecutors still have an interest in pursuing the charge.
Price said he would send a copy of documents detailing his exoneration to the Times. He did not do so after repeated requests.
Price's Maryland attorney, Richard Kodsis, said prosecutors would have to refile the case to pursue the charge. The charge, he said, was dismissed, a requirement for an expungement.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306