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In battle over Emeril Lagasse contract, Florida House helped by ruling

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a circuit judge’s ruling that blocked the House from subpoenaing records from MAT Media, LLC.
Emeril Lagasse In Florida, a television producer for ‘Emeril’s Florida’ show is fighting a subpoena from legislators seeking records detailing how the show spent millions it received from the state’s tourism agency. [Brian Ach | Invision | AP]
Emeril Lagasse In Florida, a television producer for ‘Emeril’s Florida’ show is fighting a subpoena from legislators seeking records detailing how the show spent millions it received from the state’s tourism agency. [Brian Ach | Invision | AP] [ BRIAN ACH ]
Published Feb. 7, 2020

TALLAHASSEE --- Saying the request “falls squarely within a legitimate legislative investigation,” an appeals court Friday backed the Florida House’s effort to subpoena information related to contracts for a taxpayer-funded television show hosted by famed chef Emeril Lagasse.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a circuit judge’s ruling that blocked the House from subpoenaing records from MAT Media, LLC, which received more than $10 million through contracts with the state tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.

The House in late 2017 and early 2018 sought information about MAT Media’s costs in producing the show “Emeril’s Florida,” amid a broader probe into Visit Florida contracts. The firm and its director, Pat Roberts, argued, at least in part, that the disputed information involved private records that were not pertinent to the House investigation.

After conducting what is known as an “in camera” review of the records, then-Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers agreed with MAT Media and Roberts. But the appeals court issued a 10-page ruling Friday that rejected the decision by Gievers, who has retired as a judge.

“MAT Media and Mr. Roberts do not question the authority of the House to investigate the integrity of MAT Media’s publicly funded contracts with Visit Florida and the quality of their procurement. Neither did the trial court,” said the appeals-court ruling, written by Chief Judge Stephanie Ray and joined by judges James Wolf and Timothy Osterhaus. “Rather, based on its in-camera review of the records responsive to the legislative subpoena, the trial court determined that the records would not assist the House with its investigation and that disclosure would improperly invade the privacy interests of MAT Media and Mr. Roberts. In reaching this result, however, the trial court applied an overly narrow relevancy standard and went too far by basing its decision on its in-camera review of the substance of the records responsive to the request.”

The contracts for the television show have been part of a controversy during the past few years about Visit Florida’s spending ---- and House efforts to eliminate the tourism-marketing agency. The House also has questioned such things as a past promotional contract with the Miami rapper Pitbull and a contract with an auto-racing team known as Visit Florida Racing.

The fate of Visit Florida is a closely watched issue during this year’s legislative session, as the agency will be eliminated July 1 unless it is reauthorized. The Senate and Gov. Ron DeSantis support keeping the agency, while House leaders want to end it.

The legal fight, however, has focused on whether the House could use its subpoena power to force MAT Media and Roberts to turn over the disputed financial records. In a brief filed at the appeals court, House attorneys argued the House was seeking the documents “as part of its broad power to investigate the use of public funds and the value returned to the state on those expenditures.”

“The House requests that remain at issue are specifically directed to records containing the type of information already provided to the state and relating directly to taxpayer funded contracts,” the House brief said. “The House’s subpoenas are not far-reaching, sweeping, omnibus, or invasive. The records have already been identified, they are in the possession of MAT Media or Mr. Roberts, and they contain the type of information found in other documents produced (to) the House or provided to the state. On their face, the House’s subpoenas are well within both its investigatory authority and the bounds of permissible investigatory subpoenas.”

But in a brief filed early last year, attorneys for MAT Media and Roberts disputed the House position. The firm and Visit Florida entered the contracts between 2012 and 2016, according to the brief.

“The Legislature’s investigation related solely to the establishment of the contracts at issue, the ‘use of taxpayer dollars,’ and Visit Florida’s return on investment in such contracts,” the brief said. “The documents sought via the subpoenas, however, are the private records of a private individual and entity which relate solely to how the private individual and entity spent their income after fulfillment of the contracts. Accordingly, the documents do not provide any relevant information relating to the establishment of the contracts at issue, the ‘use of taxpayer dollars,’ or Visit Florida’s return on investment. The documents sought in the subpoenas, therefore, are not pertinent to a legitimate legislative investigation.”

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