An unprecedented threat by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran to impose $1,000-a-day fines and possible jail time for a state vendor brought a swift counterattack Tuesday.
Corcoran has ordered an investigation of C. Patrick Roberts, a prominent TV executive who produces fishing and cooking shows for the state’s tourism promotion arm, Visit Florida. Roberts responded with a lawsuit that claimed Corcoran’s actions violate his civil rights. He filed suit in federal court, blocks from the Capitol.
The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, who ruled against the state in a high-profile case in 2016 in which he extended Florida’s voter registration deadline during Hurricane Matthew.
In that decision, Walker said the state’s opposition to an extension was “wholly irrational.”
In a hurried telephone hearing Tuesday, held an hour before Roberts’ 5 p.m. deadline to turn over records, Walker said he didn’t want to rule because he didn’t have enough time to review the documents.
The House can’t impose fines or jail time on Roberts until it returns for a floor session Jan. 24, so both parties agreed to a hearing Friday, after House counsel Adam Tanenbaum promised that Corcoran would not call a special session to punish Roberts before then.
Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, has made scrutiny of tourism spending a priority of his two-year tenure, launching a crusade last year against a $1 million deal between Visit Florida and the rapper Pitbull to attract tourists.
He says he’ll decide in March whether to seek the Republican nomination for governor.
The full House last Thursday voted to issue the subpoenas after an unrecorded voice vote and less than 10 minutes of discussion, a remarkable display of power even for the strong-willed Corcoran.
When Democratic Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura raised questions about due process rights, Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, chairman of the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, said: “We’re now debating it in a public forum on the House floor, and the House will speak as a body to it in a few moments. I’m sure, one way or the other, we will speak to the issue, so there is a due process element already in play.”
House leaders say they have the power under the Florida Constitution to impose fines of $1,000 a day and up to 90 days in jail against anyone found in contempt of the House while the chamber is in session. No previous speaker has invoked that authority.
Roberts, the longtime president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, has refused for three months to turn over contracts with vendors who assisted with the shows’ production and tax records to a House committee investigating his work for Visit Florida, including producing TV programs that featured celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and promoted the state as a fishing destination. Those contracts were worth $11.6 million and $2.8 million, respectively.
The House has demanded extensive financial data on Roberts’ deals over a five-year period, citing concerns about “integrity of contracts and quality of procurement.”
At issue is whether Roberts and a production company reaped excessive profits at state expense.
Roberts’ lawsuit argues that the contracts were valid and that all programs were produced to Visit Florida’s satisfaction.
Roberts is fighting the House’s contention that it can act without judicial oversight.
Through his lawyers, Mark Herron, Brennan Donnelly and Robert Telfer III, Roberts contends that the state Constitution also says that any punishment must be by “judicial proceedings as prescribed by law.”
If the House is allowed to act, the lawsuit claims, Roberts and his production company, MAT Media, “will be deprived of their property and liberty” in a violation of their constitutional rights.
Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and dean of Florida State University’s law school and a Democrat, questioned Corcoran’s actions.
“This thing has a bad odor to it,” D’Alemberte said. “It looks like a political attempt to interfere with a contractual relationship.”
D’Alemberte said he and Roberts have been friends for many years but he has no role in the lawsuits.
Corcoran signed the two subpoenas on the House rostrum and announced that a process server was in his office, waiting to serve them.
A short time later, one of Roberts’ lawyers, Tim Jansen, tweeted a photo, showing the delivery of them.
“Didn’t take long,” Jansen tweeted.