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House ethics committee turns up the heat in probe of Visit Florida TV deal

In a tense moment during the Florida House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee meeting on Thursday, the lawyer for a TV executive hired by the state held up a stack of documents, declaring the committee could have as many of his client's documents as they wished  except the ones they are seeking by subpoena.

"I have all the documents Mr. Roberts can provide ... and I'll be happy to give them to anybody who wants them at any point in time," said Mark Herron, referring to his client C. Patrick (Pat) Roberts, a longtime Tallahassee political fixture and current president of the Florida Broadcasters Association.

The committee did not take him up on the offer.

In a rare move, the committee instead unanimously voted that the House issue a separate subpoena from the committee's, which was issued in October and is being litigated in court.

Unlike that order, a House subpoena comes with a sledgehammer ability for self-enforcement outside of a court, meaning as long as the House is in session it can impose fines of $1,000 each day the requested documents aren't forked over or even imprison the subject.

"Where do we seek protection for our trade secrets?" Herron asked. "This House seems to be taking the position that they can investigate anything, ask for anything and get anything while they're in session."

The documents in question are IRS filings and contracts related to a $2.8 million tourism ad campaign for which Visit Florida, a state agency, hired Roberts and his company in 2012. It also paid Roberts $11.6 million to produce a cooking show featuring the celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.

Herron contended during the meeting that his client has handed over all documents that he is able to legally provide, and that he delivered on his promise to produce 62 episodes of the requested show as well as other marketing materials.

The outstanding documents, which include contracts between Robert's company and other vendors that assisted with the show's production, have legally-binding confidentiality agreements, he said.

But Visit Florida's spending practices have long been under scrutiny by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, whose political brand has been to combat corruption during his tenure.

Then the Naples Daily News reported that Robert's firm had kept all advertising and sponsorship revenue in addition to the contract payments, as well as a boat worth $175,000 gifted by one of the program’s sponsors.

Ranking committee member Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, a former forensic expert witness, said Herron's explanations of Roberts's point of view doesn't replace black and white evidence.

"Honestly as someone who's done forensic work for many, many years, I don't really want to hear someone's story until I have their documents," he said.

During the meeting, committee chair Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said the House's "prosecution prerogative is not only reasonable, it's necessary" for the state to conduct a thorough investigation.

The last time the legislature issued subpoenas was about two decades ago, when then-Senate President Toni Jennings took on the tobacco industry in the 90s.