By Kristen M. Clark
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — Wellington’s incoming councilman John McGovern is new to village politics and plans to join the board in two weeks on a mission of “keeping Wellington moving forward” for his children and future generations.
He’s a dedicated family man with a devout loyalty to the place he’s called his hometown for almost three decades.
But as a college student in the mid-90s, McGovern was caught up in a scandal that thrust him into the seedy side of politics — a time that he said “taught me a lot of lessons.”
“Certainly, I think, as is true for all of us, if I had it to do over, there would be some things I would do differently,” the 40-year-old attorney said of his college years.
McGovern and others were sued for defamation over political fliers that circulated the University of Florida campus during the 1995 campaign for student body president.
Candidate Charles Grapski alleged McGovern and Peter Vlcek — both members of Florida Blue Key, the university’s prestigious leadership honor society — had posted fliers falsely depicting Grapski as a child molester.
Grapski later won his lawsuit after separate juries found McGovern and Vlcek had smeared his name.
The men were ordered to pay monetary damages: $6 million from Vlcek and $100,000 from McGovern.
Vlcek later admitted in a court statement, though, that McGovern was “not involved” with the fliers.
McGovern, who later became student body president at the university, has maintained his innocence.
But by the time he was an up-and-coming attorney in West Palm Beach in 2002, the controversy took on a new chapter.
McGovern filed for bankruptcy, and Grapski alleged McGovern was only trying to weasel out of the court-ordered settlement. The case and the related lawsuits were widely covered by The Palm Beach Post and other media.
The bankruptcy eventually was resolved, and McGovern said this week he paid off the money he owed several years ago.
“The process played out, and while I may not agree with the ultimate outcome, I followed the law and satisfied the judgment — the same thing that I seek for my own clients in my own practice,” McGovern said. “At the end of the day, those events from 20 years ago have been well-chronicled, but really they’re just that: They’re events from 20 years ago.”
Today, McGovern helps manage a boutique, trial law firm in Lake Worth that has his name on the building. He’s also an executive committee member for the Palm Beach County Justice Association, among other accolades.
McGovern was the only candidate out of 21 contenders who earned scores from every council member during the selection. Vice Mayor John Greene and Councilman Matt Willhite each ranked McGovern as their first and only choice.
“It meant a lot to me that I was on all four ballots,” McGovern said.
Greene and Willhite said McGovern’s attributes and life story are compelling, and they said he’d be a good addition to the council.
“I want somebody who’s an independent-thinker,” Greene said. “I want to work with somebody who understands the issues, understands the quality of life and understands Wellington as a community, and I think John represented that.”
McGovern moved to Wellington with his family in 1986. He graduated from Wellington High in 1992 as part of the first class of students to attend all four years there.
After getting his undergraduate and law degrees from UF, McGovern said he moved back to Wellington for a short time in 2000 before moving to West Palm Beach.
He and his wife, Michelle, lived there for about 10 years until their oldest of two daughters, Emilia, reached school age.
“We wanted to go to a place that had great schools and that took us back to Wellington,” he said. “In a lot of ways, Wellington has modernized and stayed up with the times, but it is still a great, family hometown.”
Michelle McGovern has served on Wellington’s Education Committee for several years, and last summer, she joined the charter review committee as Greene’s appointment to that board.
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