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Prosecutor suddenly in spotlight

State Attorney Willie Meggs could throw a rock out of his office window at the Leon County Courthouse and hit the State Capitol across the street. But Meggs didn't have to throw anything to get the attention of the state Legislature. All it took was a few subpoenas to lobbyists and a few letters to legislators.Then all eyes turned toward the soft-spoken state attorney who looks out on state government each day.

Meggs, 47, is a tall, dark-haired father of three who has spent his life on the side of the law, working first as a Tallahassee police officer and then as a prosecutor.

A native of Tallahassee, Meggs spent his earliest days at the Leon County Jail, where his father worked as a jailer and his parents lived.

Now he works a few blocks up the street and is charged with the responsibility of overseeing criminal prosecutions in a six-county area of North Florida that includes the capital.

Until recently, Meggs received little attention from the politicians across the street, speaking to them only when asked to speak before legislative committees for the state's 20 state attorneys.

His critics have accused Meggs of grandstanding as part of some dark plot to seek a higher office, perhaps attorney general. But Meggs tosses the idea aside, insisting that he has the only office he wants.

"I really enjoy being state attorney," says Meggs. "I would like to continue being state attorney. I have no desire to be attorney general."

"Willie Meggs is exactly what he appears to be," says Arthur I. "Buddy" Jacobs, longtime lobbyist for the state's prosecuting attorneys. "I don't think there is any guile to him at all. He is very open, honest, straightforward and forthright. He has no hidden agenda."

Meggs says he is investigating the possibility that some legislators are in violation of the law because it is his job. He says he assumes no one else has ever conducted such an investigation before because the job of a prosecutor is so demanding that prosecutors tend to take the cases that are brought to their attention and always stay a little bit behind.

"I just don't see where I have a lot of choice," Meggs said last week. "Right now it has obviously become a newsy event, but we didn't select that."

Meggs says he has been surprised at the attention his investigation has attracted and even more surprised at the number of public officials who have been accepting expensive gifts.

One of the things that bothers Meggs is how public officials could take trips to Paris or Mexico or go skiing in Utah without being aware that they were accepting a gift.

"If I go to a fancy place and eat fancy meals, I would know if somebody else was paying for it," says Meggs, who accepts no free trips and even reports the gifts he gets from cousins when he files his annual report.

Meggs and his chief assistant, Anthony S. Guarisco, 46, are delving into boxes and boxes of records supplied by many of the lobbyists who furnish meals, drinks, trips and other gifts to the state's lawmakers.

Guarisco, a teddy bear-shaped, silver-haired father of two, once worked in Tampa for Hillsborough County State Attorney E.J. Salcines and has spent almost 20 years working as a prosecutor.

Guarisco handled the first statewide grand jury prosecutions in the early 1970's, working on the indictment of Raymond Grady Stansel Jr., a Tarpon Springs drug smuggler who became something of a legend in Florida drug smuggling circles.

Stansel disappeared while diving off Honduras days before his 1975 trial and remains a fugitive.

Guarisco is widely known as a prosecutor who specializes in murder cases.

He handled the case against John Spenkelink, the first person executed in Florida after the death penalty was restored in 1976.

"Murder cases take a lot of detailed presentation and that's what we're doing here," says Guarisco. "I've also done a lot of investigations of public officials."

At the state Capitol, some legislators make jokes about what may happen to the state attorney's budget next spring and Jacobs, his lobbyist, wonders if he needs a helmet. Meggs says he has talked about the investigation with several of the state's other prosecutors.

"They have said they are glad it's me and not them," Meggs says.

Meggs isn't worried. He figures his budget this year is so bad, there is not much the Legislature can do to make it much worse.

"Nothing will happen to his budget," says incoming House Speaker T.K. Wetherell. "He's just doing his job."