What do Emeril Lagasse, Pitbull and the Florida House have in common? A lawsuit soon coming to a close

A state judge will soon rule on a complicated case between the Florida House and TV executive C. Pat Roberts, deciding how much power the state Legislature has to investigate private citizens.
C. Pat Roberts stands in the courtroom where a hearing was held Friday in his lawsuit involving the Florida House. Emily L. Mahoney | TIMES
C. Pat Roberts stands in the courtroom where a hearing was held Friday in his lawsuit involving the Florida House. Emily L. Mahoney | TIMES
Published Feb. 9, 2018|Updated Feb. 9, 2018

It's not every lawsuit that has judges referencing a celebrity chef, the rapper Pitbull and the Florida House all in the same breath — but this is Florida, after all. A federal judge even quoted M.C. Hammer when hearing the case.

But after months of arguments, which included an unprecedented subpoena to be issued on the floor of the Florida House, the question of how much power the state Legislature has to investigate private citizens will soon be decided by a state judge.

The lawsuit is between TV executive C. Pat Roberts and the Florida House, and represents the conclusion of a longstanding investigation into Roberts's contracts with Visit Florida, the state's tourism arm. Roberts was hired by the state in 2012 to produce multiple seasons of a show featuring Emeril Lagasse that showcased Florida as a culinary destination.

During a hearing on Friday, Paul Phipps, former chief marketing officer for Visit Florida, testified Roberts's company, MAT Media, LLC, not only made money from its contract with the state, but also from ads it sold to other taxpayer-funded entities like cities' tourism agencies and from charging $10,000 annual licensing fees to the state to use its copyrighted content.

MAT Media also benefited from at least two years' worth of state tax rebates designed to encourage production companies to film TV shows and movies in Florida. Records form the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment show that Roberts made $400,000 in a yearly salary for at least two years of the show's production.

After handing over contracts and other documents the House had subpoenaed, what remains outstanding is Roberts's company ledger and his personal tax returns. Adam Tanenbaum, the House's lawyer, said it needs these documents to discern how much Roberts profited in order for the House to make better contracts in the future where taxpayers aren't funding big profit margins.

A House bill filed this session aims to limit how much contractors can make on the state's dime.

"The consideration of House Bill 7073 which … reforms the ways taxpayer dollars are used more efficiently to root out waste and fraud and abuse… the information that the House is seeking is right in the middle of all of that," he said.

But Roberts's lawyers have argued that the House is violating Roberts's right to privacy and his company's trade secrets because all of MAT Media's other contracts and finances would be included in those records.

Mark Herron, who represents Roberts, said Friday that the House Speaker Richard Corcoran was simply conducting this investigation because of his assumed campaign for governor this year. He referenced an ad that Corcoran posted on Twitter on Sunday depicting him touting his accomplishments, including a different investigation into a Visit Florida contract with the rapper Pitbull.

"He uses this House investigation for political purposes," said Mark Herron, representing Roberts. "This is not about an investigation to make a better procurement process. This is about an investigation to pry into the private business affairs of MAT Media and Mr. Roberts."

Judge Karen Gievers will now review the ledger and tax returns, filed Friday, and decide if the House has the right to these documents and if so, if they will be exempted from public records laws. That decision could come as early as next week.

The House's power to enforce its subpoenas only holds true during the legislative session, which ends March 9.