TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County judge ruled Thursday that attorneys for a former aide of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll could investigate the governor's office if they can prove the information they seek is relevant to a case that has spiraled into allegations of illegal taping, a sex scandal and an arson at the state Capitol.
The defense team for Carletha Cole, a criminally charged one-time aide to Carroll, has been trying to question Carroll and members of her staff after claiming that the governor's office was plagued by sexual improprieties, illegal audio recording and infighting.
Lawyers for Gov. Rick Scott's office got involved in Cole's illegal taping case, asking a judge to enter an order barring Cole's defense team from "harassing" Carroll, or using the legal system to smear her in the media.
Circuit court Judge Frank Sheffield reached for a compromise Thursday, saying he would allow the questioning, but only if Cole's defense team convinced him that it was relevant and not a "fishing expedition."
"If he can give me a reason to depose the lieutenant governor, I'm going to let him depose her," Sheffield said of Cole's defense attorney, Stephen Webster. "I'm not going to let people hide behind their office if they're involved in a case. On the other hand, just because she's the lieutenant governor, I'm not going to allow him to depose her if it's just a fishing expedition."
Lawyers from the Leon County state attorney's office and Scott's office say Cole's probe — which includes subpoenas for surveillance videos, hotel records and text messages — is an attempt to slander Carroll.
Cole, 49, is fighting a third degree felony charge that she distributed an illegally taped recording to a Florida Times-Union reporter. She was fired last year from her role as Carroll's aide, and faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Cole's lawyers have fought back against the charges by saying that Carroll's office had a culture of covert audio taping, and the lieutenant governor has been gunning for Cole ever since Cole walked in on her in a sexually "compromising position" with a travel aide. Carroll has denied the allegations.
Cole's attorneys also allege that the travel aide, Beatriz Ramos, set a trash can ablaze near Cole's desk in the state Capitol, and Carroll used her position to smother an investigation into the fire.
In August, Cole's defense team demanded that the governor's office turn over loads of information — hotel records, surveillance tapes from Carroll's office, a "smart pen" allegedly used by Carroll's chief of staff to secretly record conversations and audio tapes. It also called Carroll, her chief of staff John Konkus, Ramos and other staff members in for depositions.
The state attorney and the governor's office, in court filings, each objected to the probes, painting Cole as a disgruntled employee using salacious allegations to carry out a bitter grudge.
"Litigation of a criminal case is not license to wage a personal vendetta, as appears to be the case here," Leon County state attorney Willie Meggs wrote in a motion to quash Cole's inquiries.
Webster denied the charge, saying Carroll interjected herself into the case.
"She is directly involved in this case, whether she likes in or not," he said.
Sheffield urged Cole's attorneys not to try the case in the media, but said both parties needed to move the "simple" third degree felony case along without additional delays.
"This case is getting way out of hand," Sheffield said, before deciding not to quash the subpoenas.