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Lawyer, media ethics targeted

Tampa Bay magazine never ventures into journalism's hard-nosed neighborhoods. Its glossy pages offer pleasantries about local arts and eats. Decorating hints blend with cloying travel articles and photos of grinning couples at black-tie soirees.

"We are a vanity magazine, if you want to use that term," editor and publisher Aaron Fodiman testified recently. "We only do positive things. We don't do controversial."

Now, however, the magazine's ethics are deeply embroiled in an unusual disciplinary action brought by the Florida Bar.

The Bar, which regulates attorneys, has accused Clearwater personal injury specialist Tom Carey of violating rules about lawyer advertising.

His sin? According to the Bar, his publicist persuaded Fodiman to print a flattering profile _ "Tom Carey _ A Legendary Lawyer" _ in exchange for Carey buying a full-page ad.

The profile looked like a story. It led off with Fodiman's name, indicating authorship. But it was ghostwritten by Carey's publicist and abounded with puffery forbidden under Supreme Court rules.

Because Fodiman made only minor, stylistic changes, the Bar contended, the piece was really an ad that "masqueraded as a bona fide article."

In testimony before the Bar's grievance committee, both Carey and Fodiman denied that the profile was payback for the $4,000 full-page ad. But the Bar listened more to Clearwater Beach resident Sandy Golden, Carey's former publicist who filed the complaint after he and Carey had a bitter falling out.

Fodiman acknowledged that he frequently writes about advertisers. He socializes with them and knows their products. He sees nothing wrong with letting a publicist draft a profile and review Fodiman's stylistic changes.

"This is not journalism as we know and love it," said Dr. Jay Black, who teaches media ethics at the University of South Florida.

But Clearwater attorney Lou Kwall, who represents Carey, said his client shouldn't be disciplined for the magazine's practices.

"I don't care if (Fodiman) didn't change a word," Kwall said. "So far, I haven't heard anything in the article that wasn't true."

Door opened in 1977

For many years, Florida prohibited advertising by lawyers. That changed in 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blanket bans were unreasonable restrictions of commercial speech. The door swung open to more competitive and far-fetched ads.

Gradually, the Bar fashioned curbs, and the Florida Supreme Court adopted them.

Lawyers can't make unprovable, self-laudatory claims such as "I'm one of the leading trial lawyers in Florida."

Statements can't lead clients to unjustified expectations. For example, the Bar nixed "When you want results, call us."

Testimonials are forbidden as inherently misleading.

Violations rarely lead to discipline because lawyers are supposed to submit their ads to the Bar for approval, along with a $100 processing fee.

Carey, who deferred all questions to Kwall, told the Bar that he always tried to follow the rules.

Carey, 47, helped found Carey, Florin, Roebig & Walker in Palm Harbor, which became one of Pinellas County's most productive personal injury firms.

In some quarters, he's best known for crusading against drunken driving. After his first wife was killed by a drunken driver in 1983, Carey joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving and served as statewide president.

The movement also brought him Sandy Golden.

Golden has long been an activist against drunken driving at the local and national level. He has lobbied Congress, written books and once organized a picket of Ann Landers' home because he felt she responded insensitively to a drunken-driving victim. He brims with zeal and was booted out of one local organization after calling Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice a drunk.

"Drunk driving is my life," he often says.

In 1995, Golden was driving a cab to support himself when he read about Carey's drunken-driving activism. He told Carey he was savvy in the ways of media and could get press.

Within a few months, Carey was paying Golden $500 a week to fight drunken driving full time. Having just split with his longtime partners, Carey also wanted Golden to promote his new Clearwater firm, Carey and Hilbert.

Tampa Bay magazine became one of Golden's first targets.

A deal allegedly struck

A 13-year-old "city" magazine, Tampa Bay appears on news stands six times a year for $3.95 per copy. At times, it resembles a personal playground for its flamboyant owner, Aaron Fodiman, and his wife, Margaret Word Burnside, who frequently appear in photos and even ads.

Golden told the Bar he had socialized with Fodiman and heard he would trade editorial space for a price. Fodiman did not return calls for this story. But he told the Bar that advertisers sometimes write into contracts that they are placing an ad in exchange for a story _ a cardinal sin in traditional journalistic circles.

Sometimes, Fodiman puts the word "advertorial" at the bottom of a storylike piece, signaling to readers that the advertiser concocted it _ like an "infomercial" on television.

But Carey didn't want such a label, Golden told the Bar.

Golden said he and Fodiman struck a deal: "If Tom would buy . . . a full-page color advertisement, then he would give him space."

After Golden then drafted the profile, Fodiman removed several sentences, changed a lot of words and changed quotations.

For example, Golden's passage "He gets a lot of press coverage. He has become a news maker" became Fodiman's "He is a newsmaker who gets lots of ink, as they say in the press, and most of it is good."

Before publication, Fodiman sent the profile back to Carey "to see if there were any things that should be corrected or if I had misstated something," Fodiman told the Bar.

By Bar standards, the piece was rife with self-laudatory statements that can't be substantiated, such as: "He is a lawyer who has broken away from the pack and to many, that is what qualifies him for legend status."

To discipline Carey, however, the Bar had to separate Fodiman from authorship.

The editor "did not . . . alter the theme or substance of Golden's article to any significant degree," the Bar's complaint says.

Advertising rules apply because of Carey's "ultimate control over the article's content and the lack of journalistic ethics and practices involved in its development."

Kwall sees it differently.

"I don't care who writes the original writeup. Once Aaron Fodiman takes it and he writes it in a manner acceptable to his magazine, that's it. That takes it out of the realm of any Bar review, period," Kwall said.

Ft. Lauderdale attorney Bruce Rogow, a First Amendment specialist who may testify for Carey, likened the article to a press release. If the newspaper prints the release verbatim, does that make it an ad?

"This goes on all the time," Rogow said.

Bar staff counsel John A. Boggs disagreed.

"Just putting it in the style of an article doesn't make it an article. It's not the label, it's the content and the intent," Boggs said. "With advertising, the intent behind the message is for touting the services of the lawyer."

Intent does distinguish ads from stories, said Black, the USF professor. "The function of ads is persuasion. News' function is information."

Relationship turns sour

Unless Carey and the Bar can settle the dispute, Hillsborough County Judge James Barton will take evidence July 15 as a "referee." In the scheme of Bar discipline, he will serve as a judge and jury and will make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which has ultimate authority.

If testimony before the Bar's grievance committee and subsequent events hold true, the dispute could get personal.

According to Carey, Golden became furious when Carey refused to put up $10,000 to send activists to Washington for a drunken-driving protest. Golden then made telephone threats, Carey and his secretary told Clearwater police, who filed a report.

Golden denied making any threats and asked the police to charge Carey with making a false report. No charges were filed in either case.

Golden also denied that he demanded $10,000. He quit working with Carey because Carey supported a political candidate who had betrayed the anti-drunken-driving movement, Golden said.

In the middle is Fodiman, 60, by most accounts a fun-loving fellow who never passed himself off as a pristine journalist.

When Golden pushed for the profile of Carey right while talking about placing a full-page ad, "I went, fine. Okay. That sounds really good," Fodiman told the Bar.

Golden said he considers Fodiman a friend. But with Fodiman disputing that the profile was a payback, Golden hired a private investigator, who dug up a skeleton in Fodiman's closet and passed it along last week to the Bar and to the Times: In 1980, Fodiman was disbarred by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals after pleading guilty to violating federal banking laws and received a five-year, suspended prison sentence.

Wallace E. Shipp, deputy bar counsel in the District of Columbia, confirmed that Golden and Tampa Bar attorney Brett Geer were gathering old documents on Fodiman last week.

"It's these two, big wealthy guys' words against my teenyteeney word," Golden said.