For 75 years, Florida Blue Key has been the training ground for some of the state's most influential politicians and business leaders _ Gov. Lawton Chiles among them.
The exclusive leadership society at the University of Florida has not been free of scandal _ dirty tricks have been blamed on Blue Key in student government elections for years. Even Chiles once revealed that his student government party eavesdropped on opposition candidates while he was a member.
Yet it took a $250,000 jury award in favor of a student who alleged that Blue Key members invented a child-molestation charge against him during the 1995 student presidential election before the organization came under serious scrutiny.
"It's very embarrassing for those of us who went to Florida, and it's very embarrassing to Florida Blue Key," said Republican state Rep. Earl Ziebarth of DeLand. "I think they are now facing the biggest threat they've ever had."
Ziebarth, who challenged Blue Key as a student, said the verdict against the society has been discussed in the halls of the Legislature and lawmakers may be ready to address diminishing the organization's power. The Legislature controls funding for the 42,000-student university and the other nine schools in the State University System.
The lawsuit by Charles Grapski, a 32-year-old graduate student studying in London, claimed that Blue Key members falsified his criminal history, then made fliers and posted them around campus. Blue Key had received a copy of Grapski's 1988 arrest report on drunken driving and related charges, and members added the phony sex charge.
"Do you want this criminal as your student body president?" the fliers said.
In court, Grapski sought $150,000 in damages.
The jury found that Blue Key and incoming student body president John McGovern defamed Grapski. Former student and Blue Key member Peter Vlcek, 42, also was named in the defamation suit and will face trial later.
"I did not do this," McGovern said. "I do not know who did. I join Charlie in condemning the act, but I have been wrongly accused. I am sorry that my name is associated with an act that lacks moral character."
McGovern, 23, a law student at the university, said his attorneys and those for Blue Key have filed several motions, including one seeking a new trial.
At a student Senate meeting last week, several people called for McGovern's impeachment. About 100 students protested his taking office, chanting "Ethics in, McGovern out."
Grapski said the organization has had a stranglehold on student government for 66 years because it lines up strong political alliances with fraternities and sororities.
Members agree ahead of time which person would receive which office, he said. When those students go on to prominent political positions at the state and national levels, they maintain their connections with the Florida Blue Key chapter.
"It created this good old boys' network," Grapski said. "It is your key to the door of success in Florida politics, at least it used to be."
Blue Key's influence extends far beyond the boundaries of the university, said Grapski, who is working on a doctorate degree in political science.
"This is very much bigger than a campus issue. It is bigger than a Florida issue because its members have become members of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate. It's a symptom of what is wrong with politics in America," said Grapski, who acknowledges he has been a thorn in the side of Blue Key for years.
Blue Key, which has 100 current student members, has been known to play dirty.
Thousands of copies of the student newspaper were stolen in 1976 and again in 1996 when the paper endorsed candidates not backed by Blue Key. In this year's elections, a fraternity member was caught driving a truck full of opposition banners that he had taken down at the request of supporters of McGovern, the Blue Key candidate.
"These sort of things have been going on for decades and finally someone has taken the organization to task in court," said Ziebarth, who as a student challenged Blue Key control of student government and was elected student president in 1985-86.