In the latest skirmish in a legal battle about taxes paid by online-travel companies, a Leon County circuit judge heard arguments Wednesday about e-mail exchanges involving a lobbyist for industry giant Expedia, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.
Attorneys for Broward County, which alleges in a lawsuit that online-travel companies have not paid enough in hotel taxes, want access to the e-mail exchanges involving lobbyist Jennifer Green. Broward is trying to bolster claims that Expedia has long known that it should pay the disputed tax amounts.
But Expedia, which denies that it owes the amounts, argues that the e-mails are protected by attorney-client privilege and should not be part of the lawsuit. Green exchanged e-mails with an Expedia attorney as she worked on legislation aimed at making clear online-travel companies do not have to pay the disputed taxes —- legislation that did not pass.
“Jennifer Green is not an attorney,” Broward lawyer Jon Moyle told Circuit Judge Terry Lewis during Wednesday’s hearing. “She is a lobbyist, and she was hired by Expedia to represent their interests before the Legislature.”
Expedia attorney Tamara Marinkovic, however, said Green could not do her job without understanding the potential legal effects of legislation on Expedia. She said Expedia is seeking to protect only 31 of about 350 e-mail exchanges involving Green.
“We’ve tried to narrowly tailor our privilege claims,” Marinkovic said.
The hearing was the latest event in a fiercely litigated case that started in 2009 and has included issues such as an unsuccessful attempt by Expedia to force state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, to give sworn testimony in a deposition. Kriseman has been an outspoken critic of the industry’s tax stance and distributed potentially damaging internal company documents to other lawmakers last year.
Lewis will hold another hearing Monday to listen to what are known as “summary judgment” arguments. He could decide the case after those arguments without going to trial.
The case centers on an important part of the business model of Expedia and other companies such as Orbitz and Travelocity.
The companies, which serve as middlemen between hotels and travelers, charge customers for rooms, rentals and fees for providing the service. The Broward case focuses on whether local tourist-development taxes should apply to the total costs, or as the companies argue, only to the amounts they pay for room rental.
Another Leon County circuit judge, James Shelfer, recently ruled in favor of the industry in a separate lawsuit filed by a group of Florida counties. That ruling has been challenged in the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Green, a well-known lobbyist whose other clients range from the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants to Humana, Inc., has become enmeshed in the Broward County case because of her efforts to pass legislation backed by Expedia.
Amid the legal dispute, it is not clear what is included in the e-mails. But Wednesday’s arguments indicated at least some were exchanged in 2011, when there was a hard-fought legislative debate about the online-travel issue. The hearing, for example, included references to state Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who has sponsored industry-backed legislation.
Lewis said he will rule quickly on the e-mail issues. But Lewis also appeared to suggest that many of the disputed e-mails don’t include information that would bolster Broward’s case.