(CN) – A federal judge Tuesday agreed to an expedited hearing on a complaint brought by the producer of one of chef Emeril Lagasse’s cooking shows who says the Florida legislature is bullying him and violating his constitutional rights.
The Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives are seeking years of records detailed how the show “Emeril’s Florida” spent $10 million it received from the state’s tourism agency, Visit Florida, during the five years the show aired on The Cooking Channel.
Those records include tax records from producter Pat Robert’s MAT Media, as well as information on how much Lagasse was paid.
A House committee last October issued its own subpoena asking for the records, but Roberts refused to turn them over and instead filed a lawsuit in state court.
Last week, the House demanded Roberts and his company turn over the records within five days or risk being subjected to significant fines and even jail time. On Tuesday — deadline day — Roberts filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the House from taking action, arguing that in addition to trampling his rights, the government was seeking to force him to disclose trade secrets that are protected by privacy laws.
During an emergency hearing Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed to consider the case and placed it on his calendar for Friday.
In the meantime, Adam Tanenbaum, the general counsel for the House, promised state lawmakers would not attempt to punish Roberts before then.
“We are pleased the federal court will finally give Mr. Roberts due process by allowing a court to review the House’s actions,” said Tim Jansen, one of the attorneys representing the Tallahassee producer. “This is the first, but necessary, step to protect Mr. Roberts’ rights.”
The state House has been reviewing Visit Florida’s contracts with celebrities and media companies for more than a year, and the agreement with “Emeril’s Florida” isn’t the only deal that has been scrutinized.
In Dec. 2016, the Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued PDR Productions Inc., a product-placement firm, to find out how much the rapper Pitbull was paid to promote the state in a music video and on social media.
PDR Productions had resisted disclosing the information voluntarily, like Roberts, citing concerns over revealing trade secrets.
Pitbull, however, had no such qualms, and two days after Corcoran’s lawsuit was filed, tweeted a link to his 11-page, $1 million contract. The agreement included covering the production costs of a video for his song “Sexy Beaches.”
Gov. Rick Scott responded by asking Visit Florida’s CEO to step down, and the agency has also eliminated its chief financial officer and chief marketing officer positions.
State lawmakers say they are scrutinizing the contracts to ensure the state is getting its money worth when the agency spends millions on tourism contracts with celebrities.
Roberts is seeking an injunction against the Florida House of Representatives and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran to block the release of the requested documents. His lawyers contend that Roberts could be sued if the information in the documents is released to the public.
Corcoran released a statement about the case Tuesday night.
“Mr. Roberts will do anything to hide his actions from public view. Most Americans believe that if you take taxpayer money, you are accountable to the taxpayer. These attempts at delay are a slap in the face to hard working Floridians. Today’s tactics only strengthen our resolve to do what’s in the best interest of those we serve.”
While questioning the constitutionality of the House’s authority to punish those who do not comply with its document-seeking subpoenas, the lawsuit also says that the documents being requested in this case include financial information which has nothing to do with the matter for which the plaintiffs are being investigated.
The lawsuit claims that the state is requesting documents beyond the television contracts which are the focus of the state’s investigation and those documents are protected by privacy laws.
The plaintiffs also claim that the way in which the subpoenas were issued during legislative session in October and then re-issued last week when lawmakers were out of session was an attempt by the defendants to deny Roberts and Mat of due process by judicial review.
Corcoran is the first Florida speaker to impose such authority over the release of documents during a House investigation.