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Ex-U.S. attorney sues Home Shopping

From its pugilistic beginning five years ago, the traffic altercation between Robert Merkle and George Gusler has always taken on larger-than-life proportions.

First, came the tale of former U.S. attorney Merkle hobbling on a bad leg along Starkey Road near Largo to punch out a fellow motorist.

Then came the longest misdemeanor trial in Pinellas County history. Lawyers and judges lined the walls for three weeks in 1994 to watch Merkle and his defense attorney, Denis de Vlaming, not only beat a battery rap but elicit a rare note from jurors saying that Merkle was "fully justified" in defending his family.

Now comes Round Three: a malicious prosecution lawsuit that alleges the battery charge against Merkle resulted from a conspiracy hatched in the highest reaches of Home Shopping Network.

At the time of the traffic accident, Gusler worked for the television retailer and conspired with company executives "to have Merkle prosecuted for a crime in order to benefit the interests of Home Shopping Network," says the suit, filed recently in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Why would they do that?

Merkle, now a private lawyer who lives in Clearwater, was representing former HSN general counsel Allen Allweiss in a contentious, multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the company, the suit says. So HSN executives "launched a campaign intended to discredit Allweiss and his attorney, Merkle."

According to the suit, Home Shopping executives:

+ Made Gusler take on a high-profile Tampa attorney to make sure Merkle got prosecuted.

+ Promoted Gusler "for maintaining his false version of events."

+ Tried to tamper with the jury by sending Home Shopping employees to the trial where they hung around jurors during breaks and made comments like "Merkle is guilty."

Home Shopping, which has changed hands since the trial, had not been served with the lawsuit and wouldn't comment, spokesman Gerry Hoeppner said Friday.

But Edward Vaughn, one of two former vice presidents named as a defendant, said "there's not even a grain of fact" to the allegations. "I had no personal interest (in prosecuting Merkle), nor did the company," Vaughn said. "Mr. Merkle exaggerates his importance to the world."

The other former vice president sued, Larry Krupnick, could not be reached.

Gusler, now a consultant in Largo, denied that he lied, withheld evidence or distorted any of his testimony in the Merkle prosecution. However, he confirmed one allegation in the suit.

"I was a pawn in a much bigger play," Gusler said.

After the accident, Gusler said, Krupnick approached him and insisted he hire Tampa lawyer John Lauro as his attorney.

Krupnick "said he was my boss and it would be in my best interest" to hire Lauro, Gusler said. Gusler said he told Krupnick he already had an attorney but Krupnick stood over him while he called Lauro from Krupnick's office.

"I felt my position was in jeopardy if I didn't," Gusler said.

At the time, Lauro was one of many lawyers opposing Merkle in the complex Allweiss-Home Shopping suit.

Though Merkle's suit alleges that Home Shopping paid Lauro's $200-per-hour fee to represent Gusler, Lauro said he did it for free. Among other things, Lauro said, he thought Gusler might have a civil claim against Merkle, and he could be paid out of that.

Lauro denied any conspiracy to get Merkle charged.

"The prosecutors in this case were very experienced prosecutors who spent a great deal of time examining the facts and interviewing people in the case at length," Lauro said. "The decision to bring charges against Mr. Merkle were handled independently and in a completely proper way."

Merkle, 53, did not return a telephone call.

The traffic altercation began when Merkle, his wife and five of his nine children were driving in their van about 8:30 one night in August 1993. Merkle said Gusler cut them off with his Hyundai, stopped in the middle of the road and trapped them in traffic. When Gusler got out of his car, Merkle said, he feared for his family's safety.

Gusler said he stopped his car because the Merkles were tailgating him and flashing their lights. He said he got out of the car to see what they wanted.

Because Merkle was a former U.S. attorney in Tampa, Gov. Lawton Chiles assigned the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office to handle the investigation. Assistant state attorneys Ellen Roberts and Jack Nieland brought the charges. Roberts was on vacation Friday and Nieland declined to comment in detail because he might be a witness in the lawsuit.

He did say that Gusler, Home Shopping and Lauro "absolutely had nothing to do with that prosecution."

Malicious prosecution lawsuits usually are brought against law enforcement authorities or against private individuals who have sued someone. But such lawsuits also can be brought against private individuals who lie to authorities to get someone else charged.

Mere acquittal on a criminal charge doesn't prove that a prosecution was malicious, according to Florida case law. Plaintiffs must show that no probable cause existed for the charge _ which could be a difficult hurdle for Merkle because a Florida Highway Patrol trooper said she saw him hitting Gusler.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.