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Breakfast table talk that's hard to swallow

Some things in West Tampa have changed.

The tiny but popular restaurant on Columbus Drive first owned by West Tampa's singing twins, the Arena brothers, is now the Pacific Cafe. It is run by a Vietnamese family. You can still buy cafe con leche, but you can also get a pork dish called Bun Bo Xao and several other Asian specialties of the house.

Some things in West Tampa have not changed. Take, for example, the fondness some people have for conspiracy theories.

Eight years ago, the theory was that a clique of power-mad federal prosecutors joined with the Tampa Tribune to destroy West Tampa's most revered politician, E. J. Salcines, who was then state attorney.

Currently the theory, as it was expressed by several retired men sharing coffee and Cuban toast at the Pacific Cafe, is that power-mad federal prosecutors joined with the St. Petersburg Times to save the job of Bill James, the former federal prosecutor who beat Salcines eight years ago.

Back then, the conspiracists contended the Tribune went after Salcines in the name of Tampa's ruling class _ those Anglos from the south side of town _ that supposedly wanted to destroy this almost sanctified Latin politician.

Currently, the conspiracists believe that the Times has done a number on some of the judges, including Harry Lee Coe, James' expected opponent, to help James and boost the paper's circulation in Tampa. The Times, if you believe the conspiracists, never looks at corruption in Pinellas County. Bill James, the conspiracy goes, merely took advantage of the paper's needs in Tampa by leaking lies that ended up hurting the sons of West Tampa again.

"Notice how, to get to Coe, they had to go through those Latin judges?" a retired mailman named Daniel Sanchez said in a voice rumbling with anger.

"Goddamn newspaper comes into this community and tears everybody down!"

"Has that man paid his bill?" cried out somebody else who would not give his name. "I want to pay for it!"

The little room broke out in general applause. This would have been the time for the men to show me the door. But they were, in their boisterous way, polite as well as practical. If they had given me the boot, they wouldn't have had anybody but each other to complain to in their operatic fashion.

To a man, they were incensed at the paper for reporting on how four judges, including Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez and Coe, sealed cases repeatedly for some defendants with courthouse connections. The men at the breakfast table said the sealings were legal and said if they weren't, the prosecutor should have objected.

"Then it falls back on Bill James," said another man, Pete Diaz.

"Oh no," answered Sanchez, "then (the paper) would find a way to make it not affect James!"

"James is Teflon," he said. "Nothing is ever going to stick to him."

I never did get a chance to say many of the sealings occurred when Salcines, not James, was state attorney.

The chatter was punctuated with references to the charges leveled against Coe and another judge, Robert Bonanno, by a lawyer named Manny Machin. This paper (and other news organizations) reported last week on the explosive contents of Machin's deposition. Among other things, Machin said he'd been told Bonanno traded courtroom favors for oral sex.

"They should have checked it out before they put it in the paper!" Daniel Sanchez shouted _ again.

Curiously, the men at the Pacific Cafe didn't dwell much on John Valenti, the prosecutor caught taking a bribe while he worked for Bill James. "If Valenti had worked for Salcines, Salcines would have caught hell for it," was all Sanchez said.

Again, I might have explained things. Could have pointed out that all reporters did was transmit the charges Machin made in what is now a public document. Could have said that no matter what editorial writers write, reporters don't side with politicians. But I don't know that I'd have been understood.

"Every time they run for office," Pete Diaz said of the politicians he admires so, "somebody makes up this stuff."

"I don't know if that's the truth," he said in the only moment of doubt revealed by the crowd at the Pacific Cafe. "But that's the way it looks."