State and federal courts have confirmed the Florida Legislature’s power of subpoena, and the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee plans to exert that authority in investigating corruption, waste and misappropriation of taxpayer money, a key Republican lawmaker vowed Thursday.
Rep. Tom Leek, R-Daytona Beach, who chairs the House ethics committee, said a Feb. 7 ruling by a three-judge panel of Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal has “upheld our authority to issue subpoenas.”
The ruling cleared the path for the committee to issue subpoenas Thursday seeking documents from the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) in the state’s broadening investigation into allegations of “exorbitant executive payouts, abuse of state funds and withholding documents.”
The decision also allows the House to subpoena MAT Media and its owner, Pat Roberts, for financial records documenting how it spent $12.7 million in taxpayer money the state’s tourism-marketing agency, VISIT FLORIDA, gave it between 2012-17 to produce the "Emeril’s Florida" TV show.
"Emeril’s Florida," hosted by chef Emeril Lagasse, featured Florida-style cuisine and Florida eateries and aired on the Food Network and Cooking Channel.
The appellate panel’s decision overturned former Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers' ruling that blocked the House from subpoenaing MAT Media for records related to the show.
Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, now state Education Commissioner, asked the House in 2018 to issue a subpoena to demand the records. The House did so – the first time in the chamber’s history a subpoena was issued by a floor vote.
The House sought 2016 and 2017 information to determine whether Roberts profited more from the taxpayer-funded deal than from similar contracts with private companies.
The House subpoena gave Roberts five days to turn over the records. Refusing to comply could have resulted in fines or jail for Roberts. But in its court filings, the House said it would hold additional hearings before holding Roberts in contempt.
MAT Media and Roberts disputed the House’s authority to issue the subpoena and asked U.S. District Judge Mark Walker for an injunction. Walker refused, ruling the House had the authority to demand the information. He dismissed the need for an injunction because Roberts was not in “imminent” danger of being punished.
“If Mr. Roberts was being hauled off and taken into custody, I may have a different view,” Walker wrote.
Roberts appealed to Gievers’ state court, arguing some information was private, irrelevant, could get him sued if publicly divulged and a trade secret.
Gievers cited Roberts’ right to privacy under the Florida Constitution and blocked the subpoena.
The House appealed, resulting in the 1st District Court of Appeals' ruling that the request “falls squarely within a legitimate legislative investigation.”
“Quite simply, courts may not second-guess the legitimacy of a legislative inquiry so long as it is not plainly incompetent or irrelevant to any lawful purpose of the Legislature in the discharge of its duties,” Chief Justice Stephanie Ray wrote. “To do so would entangle the judicial branch in matters involving the exclusive prerogative of another branch in violation of Florida’s strict separation of powers requirement.”
“It’s a good ruling for us. A good day for us,” Leek said.
But maybe not for VISIT FLORIDA, which has been under fire by House leaders since 2016 for making “secret” deals with public money, including $1 million with the rapper Pitbull, disclosed after the House sued to make it public.
The House has allocated no money in its proposed fiscal year 2021 budget for VISIT FLORIDA. The Senate and Gov. Ron DeSantis have budgeted $52.5 million for the agency.