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LAFAVE DENIES WRONGDOING

Her attorney is questioning probation officials' take on her chats with a teen.

Teacher-turned-sex offender Debra Lafave arrived in court Tuesday hoping to resolve the latest charge against her but left having only denied that she did anything wrong.

She is accused of violating the terms of her sentence by having intimate conversations with a female teenage co-worker at a Sun City Center diner.

Her attorney and attorneys for the teen are questioning probation officials' characterization of those chats. A full hearing on the allegations will be held Jan. 10.

"We are going to vigorously, and I mean vigorously, contest the unfounded allegations against Debbie," John Fitzgibbons, Lafave's attorney, said after court Tuesday.

His comments followed those made in recent days by the teen's attorneys, who seemed to cast doubt on the strength of the state's case.

"All of the conversations which took place between our client and her co-workers, including Ms. Lafave, were customary, age appropriate in nature, non-offensive and typical," attorneys Scott Fitzpatrick and Daniel Hartzog said in a statement released over the weekend.

The teen's attorneys would not elaborate to the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, but Fitzpatrick told Fox 13 that "we do not believe that specifically sexual content was ever discussed."

Lafave, who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 14-year-old student in 2004, had completed nearly two years of her three-year house arrest sentence when she was arrested Dec. 4 on a probation violation charge. Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett signed the arrest warrant and ordered Lafave to be released without posting bail.

In a report, probation officer Michael Cotignola wrote that Lafave and her teenage co-worker discussed "non-work related issues such as family problems, friends, high school, personal life, boyfriend issues and sexual issues in both private one-on-one conversations ... and group settings."

The girl, a high school student from Ruskin, worked with Lafave at Danny Boy's Restaurant before Lafave was required to quit.

The teen was approached by probation officials in early December, according to the teen's attorneys.

Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi declined to comment on how the teen's attorney's remarks will affect the case.

Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman JoEllyn Rackleff had this to say: "We just stand behind the report of the probation officer. We feel his actions were appropriate, and he was supported by the court who issued the warrant."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

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