Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida reports: Florida lawmakers and online-travel company Expedia are battling in an appeals court about whether Rep. Rick Kriseman and a legislative aide can be forced to give depositions in a contentious tax lawsuit.
House attorneys last month asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to block a circuit judge’s ruling that Expedia could subpoena Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, and aide David Flintom and ask limited questions.
The tax lawsuit involves Broward County’s contention that Expedia and other online-travel companies have not paid as much money in hotel bed taxes as they owe. Kriseman, who has been highly critical of the industry’s stance on the issue, became embroiled in the lawsuit after he e-mailed potentially damaging Expedia internal documents to other House members last spring.
The House, which has been joined in the appeals-court case by the Senate and Attorney General Pam Bondi, argues that lawmakers and staff members enjoy immunity from being forced to testify on issues in the “legislative sphere.” Also, it contends that lawmakers are protected by the constitutional separation of powers from being required to testify.
“Subjecting members of the Florida House of Representatives, who face trial by election every two years, to compelled videotaped depositions at the hands of special interests who oppose their legislative positions on pending legislation or public policy would most certainly serve as a deterrent to the uninhibited discharge of their duties,” the House argued in a document filed in the case.
The attorney general’s office and Senate said in a brief that lawmakers, staff and high-ranking state executives should not be summoned to depositions to explain how they carried out their jobs.
“No possible good would come from setting such a precedent,” the brief said. “To the contrary, such a precedent could be used not only to harass such officials, but to bring government to a virtual halt.”
But Expedia argues that state law does not shield Kriseman and Flintom from testifying. Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued an order in November that cleared the way for the depositions, though he restricted the topics that Expedia attorneys could address.
“Despite the House’s and (the attorney general’s and Senate’s) rhetoric, however, nothing in the trial court’s order at issue here comes close to even threatening to disrupt the legislative process, much less forcing the mechanisms of Florida state government to grind to a halt,” Expedia argued in a court document.
The dispute appears to be rare in Florida legislative history, with the House acknowledging that there is a “dearth of case law on the privileges and immunities of Florida legislators.” As a result, the House’s arguments delve into issues such as British common law, which serves as a foundation for the U.S. legal system.
Expedia and other online travel companies, such as Orbitz and Travelocity, have become involved in recent years with a series of legal and legislative fights about hotel taxes. Broward County is one of numerous counties that contend the companies have not paid as much in tourist-development taxes as they owe.
The companies, which serve as middlemen between hotels and travelers, charge customers for room rentals and fees for providing the service. The lawsuits focus on whether the taxes should apply to the total costs, or as the companies argue, only to the amounts they pay for room rental.
Lawmakers have proposed bills, including this session, that would make clear the online-travel companies don’t have to pay the disputed amounts. Kriseman released the Expedia documents to other House members as he tried to defeat a similar bill last spring.
The internal documents, which were unearthed in a Georgia lawsuit, involve opinions from attorneys and accountants. Kriseman and other critics contend the documents show that Expedia has known it should pay the disputed tax amounts.
Broward County has attempted to use the documents in the lawsuit, but Lewis has largely sided with Expedia’s argument that they are legally privileged because they involve such things as communications between attorneys and a client.
The county’s attorneys hope to prove that Expedia has taken steps that could be considered breaching that privilege — which, in effect, could allow the documents to be used in the case. That has led to wrangling about Kriseman’s involvement with the documents and interactions he might have had with Expedia lobbyists.
While Expedia has sought to take testimony from the lawmaker and his aide, Broward County attorneys have deposed company lobbyist Jennifer Green.
The House last week asked the appeals court to hold oral arguments on whether Kriseman and his aide can be required to testify. The court had not decided whether to grant the request as of Friday.
Also, the legal battling about the depositions has caused a delay in the overall Broward County lawsuit. The case was initially scheduled to go to trial Jan. 30.