Doral City Council member Pete Cabrera says he will refuse to turn over his cellphone for a search ordered by a Florida court that is considering a lawsuit filed by a billboard advertising company against city officials.
Cabrera said he will refuse to hand over his phone to protect his privacy, even though he runs the risk of being arrested and despite the fact that a dozen Doral officials, including Mayor Luigi Boria and other council members, have obeyed the court order.
“I am not going to allow them to intimidate me and invade my private life,” Cabrera told El Nuevo Herald. “I have the strength to confront special interests.”
Santiago Echemandía, owner of the billboard company, SDE Media LLC, that filed the lawsuit, said Cabrera’s decision seemed odd to him.
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“I don’t understand what the council member is hiding,” Echemandía said. “How can it be that a council member elected by the public refuses to obey a court order?”
SDE Media filed a motion last week before the 11th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Miami to force Cabrera to obey an earlier court ruling ordering him to turn over his cellphone or face a $2,000 fine for each day he does not.
The legal dispute goes back to 2014, when the City Council rejected an ordinance, which had been approved on first reading months earlier, regulating the location of billboards that generate income for the municipality.
The rejection prevented SDE Media from putting up a billboard on the northwest corner of the Palmetto Expressway and Northwest 36th Street, one of the most trafficked areas of Doral.
SDE Media then requested information from the call and text message records of council members’ phones.
According to the lawsuit, between June 2014 and early January 2015 there were more than 400 calls and text messages between Boria and council members Cabrera, Sandra Ruiz and Christi Fraga, as well as with Melissa Tápanes, a lawyer for View Point of Florida, former partner of SDE Media and now one of its top competitors.
Tápanes could not be reached for comment. A secretary at the Bercow, Radell & Fernandez law firm in Miami said Friday that El Nuevo Herald’s request for comment would be passed on to her, but there was no reply by the end of the day.
The court order
After Echemandía filed his lawsuit alleging “bad faith” by city officials, Judge William Thomas ordered 12 officials to erase nothing from their cellphones so the content could be analyzed later.
The officials: five council members; City Administrator Edward Rojas and his aide, Albert Childress; city attorneys Dan Espino and Gilberto Pastoriza; Planning and Zoning Director Julian Perez; Jennifer Lattifa, an employee in the city secretary’s office; and information technician Jose Soto.
During a council session Wednesday, Boria and council members Ruiz and Ana Maria Rodriguez confirmed to El Nuevo Herald that they had turned in their cellphones to be searched. A representative for Fraga, who is on maternity leave, said she also handed over her cellphone and was ready to cooperate with the judicial process.
“You have to obey the law, and that’s what we do,” Boria said. “But I do believe that [the court order] is a little broad.”
The council also voted Wednesday to approve payments for lawyers defending the case. Council member Rodriguez voted against the payments.
For his part, Cabrera told El Nuevo Herald: “I don’t care if I go to jail. I prefer it to handing over my private information, because I don’t want to allow a special interest to try to intimidate me.”
Cabrera said he owns only one personal cellphone and pays his AT&T bill out of his own pocket. He added that on Jan. 22 he met with a technician from the company designated by the court to collect the phone records. Court records show the company is Epiq Systems Inc.
“I was going to do it, but after they explained to me what they were going to do, I decided not to hand over my cellphone,” Cabrera said. “They want to copy, to clone, all the information from my phone … that is a violation of my civil rights.”
Cabrera added that he bought his current cellphone in October, so it would be unlikely to contain information about an issue that goes back to the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015.
The 3rd Florida Court of Appeals on Nov. 25 rejected an appeal by the city to dismiss the SDE Media lawsuit, thereby validating Thomas’ ruling from July.
Almost one month later, Thomas renewed his order to Epiq to copy the information on the cellphones referring to the case under investigation. Epiq would be subject to punishment if it violates the order.
Cabrera said there were no guarantees that parts of his private life would not be made public for political or other reasons.
“They are trying to intimidate me, and I am not going to give in,” he said.
According to SDE Media, the initial phone and text message records obtained show communications that raise suspicion about a possible violation of the Sunshine Law. The most appropriate way to continue the investigation, it said, is to analyze all of the text messages that refer exclusively to the case.
“When an official uses his private telephone for public matters, the law says that becomes part of the public record,” Echemandía said. “The city is spending thousands of dollars to defend a case where the appeals court has already ruled.”
Follow Enrique Flor on Twitter: @kikeflor