Appeal court sustains Florida House’s subpoena of Visit Florida’s ‘Emeril’ contract

Florida First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. Photo by Michael Rivera, Wikimedia Commons

A state appeal court has handed a victory to the Florida House in a dispute over financial records kept by the company that produced the “Emeril’s Florida” cooking show under contract with Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion arm.

The outcome could strengthen the House’s hand in the continuing drama over Visit Florida.

That chamber keeps trying to kill the agency while Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Senate see it as crucial to promoting Florida’s tourism industry.

At the least, the ruling vindicates the Legislature’s broad authority to investigate suspected corruption, inefficiency, or waste.

“Quite simply, courts may not second-guess the legitimacy of a legislative inquiry so long as it is not plainly incompetent or irrelevant to any lawful purpose of the Legislature in the discharge of its duties,” Chief Justice Stephanie Ray wrote for a three-judge panel.

“To do so would entangle the judicial branch in matters involving the exclusive prerogative of another branch in violation of Florida’s strict separation of powers requirement.”

The dispute arose when Richard Corcoran – now state education secretary under Gov. Ron DeSantis – served as speaker of the House.

A skeptic of state economic development aid, Corcoran demanded the agency open its books to legislative scrutiny. Visit Florida remains a bone of contention during the 2020 legislative session, with sitting Speaker Jose Oliva suggesting the industry might finance its own publicity.

Former Leon County Circuit Court Karen Gievers had rejected the House’s demand to see financial records concerning the production and airing of ‘Emeril’s Florida’ for years 2012-2017” kept by MAT Media LLC and its owner, Charles “Pat” Roberts.

After privately reviewing the material at issue, she cited Roberts’ and his company’s right to privacy under the Florida Constitution.

In a ruling handed down Friday, a three-judge panel of the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal rejected Gievers’ reasoning.

“[T]he 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,” Ray wrote.

“More broadly, given that MAT Media was required by contract to maintain ‘journals, ledgers, books, and other records in good order and in sufficient detail to allow audit and post-audit activities,’ we are not persuaded that any purported privacy interests in these records provided a valid basis to resist the legislative request.”

Furthermore, the court said, the right to privacy attaches only to a “natural person” – not a company.

“[W]e are not persuaded that any purported privacy interests in these records provided a valid basis to resist the legislative request. That this information may be considered ‘confidential’ by MAT Media and Mr. Roberts does not render it off limits in a legitimate legislative inquiry,” Ray wrote.

“Whether the records should be produced under protection for trade secret information is a separate matter, which must be first addressed by the trial court.”