State Attorney paying PR firm with taxpayer money

Legal fees in Ayala's lawsuit against governor top $102,000 in 2 weeks

ORLANDO, Fla. – Over a two-week period in late March, private lawyers representing State Attorney Aramis Ayala in her lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott billed Ayala's office more than $102,000, invoices obtained by News 6 show.

Ayala's legal expenses include fees owed to Kivvit, a public relations firm founded by David Axelrod, a former campaign strategist and senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

Since the State Attorney's Office is funded almost entirely by state and local tax dollars, invoices from Ayala's legal team and public relations advisors will likely be paid with public money.

Ayala, who announced she would not seek the death penalty in any murder case, sued Scott in April after the governor reassigned 23 of Ayala's capital cases to another state prosecutor.

Attorneys billed Ayala $102,334 over 11 days

From March 21-30, invoices show the Washington, D.C., law firm of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis billed the State Attorney's Office $75,550.

Over that same two week period, Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, a Tampa law firm, charged the State Attorney's Office $26,794, invoices show.

The two bills totaling $102,344 in legal fees only cover work the law firms did on Ayala's behalf in late March.

Invoices for April and May related to Ayala's lawsuit against Scott were not yet available through a public records request.

A spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office did not respond to multiple emails from News 6 asking how much Ayala expected the litigation to cost and how much money the office had budgeted for its lawsuit against Scott.

However, one of Ayala's private lawyers, Roy Austin, defended the state attorney's move to hire his firm rather than use her office's salaried, in-house counsel.

"The services of (our law firms) are only necessary because of Governor Scott’s unconstitutional and illegal overreach," Austin told News 6.  "State Attorney Ayala and her staff have more than enough work to do keeping the people of Orange and Osceola Counties safe, while my team defends her authority."

Austin pointed to a recent Associated Press report that showed Scott and other state officials have also used private attorneys in public lawsuits.

However, in defending himself against Ayala's lawsuit, the governor is being represented by his own office's legal team and attorneys from Florida's Solicitor General.  Scott has not hired outside counsel, a representative from Scott's press office told News 6.

Although attorneys in Austin's firm typically charge $325 to $800 per hour, Ayala is being billed at a "blended" rate of $395 per hour, the retainer agreement shows.

"What is most important to me is that my team, operating with significantly reduced rates, is ensuring that every penny is being spent so State Attorney Ayala can do the job she was elected to do," Austin said in a statement.

Ayala's legal team hires PR firm

Since specific legal services provided to Ayala by the private lawyers are considered confidential under Florida's public-records laws, invoices provided by the State Attorney's Office to News 6 contain many redactions.

However, those invoices show Austin's law firm received a $6,555 bill from the public relations firm Kivvit for "litigation support" it provided to Ayala in March.

Ayala and Austin declined to explain what specific services the public relations firm is providing to her legal team.  A representative from Kivvit did not respond to emails from News 6 seeking comment.

Emails obtained by News 6 show Ayala has been in contact with Tracy Schmaler, a managing director based out of Kivvit's office in Washington, D.C.

Schmaler previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice during President Obama's administration as a spokesperson for Attorney General Eric Holder.

According to her biography on Kivvit's website, Schmaler provides clients with public affairs advice on issue advocacy, crisis and litigation communications, government investigations  and general issues management.

On March 29, while Kivvit was billing Ayala's legal team for its services, Schmaler and Ayala received an email from Miriam Krinsky.

Krinsky is a former federal prosecutor who now represents two special-interest groups promoting criminal justice reform policies, including one which seeks to abolish the death penalty.

Krinsky's email references a rally that was being held the following day outside Florida's Capitol in support of Ayala.

"I heard from Christine (Florida organizer for Equal Justice USA) today that she is getting a number of questions from the leaders of the Rally as to why they have had no communication from Ayala while they are all working so hard to generate large numbers of supporters for her," Krinsky wrote.  "Christine thought it would be very nice to be able to deliver a message from Ayala to the folks on the 11 buses tomorrow traveling to Tallahassee."

Hours later, Krinsky sent another message to Schmaler at her Kivvit email address that specifically addressed the public relations representative.

"Tracy (Schmaler): Are you thinking that a short message/statement from Aramis to read to folks on the bus would be useful?  If so would you want to craft something to run by her and Roy (Austin)?"

Austin declined to discuss whether Schmaler drafted that message on Ayala's behalf, nor whether the public relations firm has provided any other services to the state attorney outside the scope of Ayala's lawsuit against the governor.

"Enlisting outside consultants, like Ms. Schmaler, to assist in litigation is a common practice and courts across this country have long recognized the value of employing these kinds of litigation support experts," Austin said.

Taxpayers to cover Ayala's legal, PR expenses

Ayala's spokeswoman, Eryka Washington, previously indicated that the State Attorney's Office would pay legal expenses related to her lawsuit against the governor.

Nearly all of Ayala's $29.7 million budget is funded by taxpayers.  More than $27 million of that is allocated for employees' salaries and benefits, state records show, with about $1.5 million earmarked for operating expenditures.

Invoices submitted by the law firms for March were addressed to Ayala and Kamilah Perry, her office's general counsel.

Under the terms of Ayala's retainer agreements with the law firms, outside parties may make financial contributions.

"The ethics rules may require that we obtain your consent for the payment of your fees in this matter by any third party, including a legal defense fund," states one of those agreements.

Austin and  Washington did not respond to emails from News 6 inquiring whether any outside parties, such as private individuals or non-profit organizations, are contributing money to Ayala's litigation.

"You have my response," said Austin without addressing the question.

Washington indicated the State Attorney's Office was not in possession of any records showing Ayala gave written authorization for outside parties to help pay for her legal fees.


After the publication of this article, Ayala's attorney Roy Austin sent an email to News 6 providing additional information about Miriam Krinksy.

"Miriam Krinsky runs Fair and Just Prosecution that promotes criminal justice reform policies – it does not advocate on behalf of or against the death penalty," wrote Austin.  "In addition, she is just one of 25 people on the Legal Advisory Council of the Fair Punishment Project where the death penalty is simply one of a number of issues that the project is involved in – she does not represent them in the capacity you reported. "

News 6 has updated the article to reflect that only one of Krinsky's organizations advocates against the death penalty, not both.

Austin has also requested that News 6 publish his entire statement, which includes additional information about Krinsky.

Statement of Roy L. Austin, Jr.
Legal Counsel for State Attorney Aramis Ayala
"The services of law firms Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis and Zuckerman Spaeder are only necessary because of Governor Scott’s unconstitutional and illegal overreach.  State Attorney Ayala and her staff have more than enough work to do keeping the people of Orange and Osceola Counties safe, while my team defends her authority.  Enlisting outside consultants, like Ms. Schmaler, to assist in litigation is a common practice and courts across this country have long recognized the value of employing these kinds of litigation support experts.
"There is not anything nefarious about the relationship between State Attorney Ayala and Ms. Krinsky.  State Attorney Ayala was introduced to Ms. Krinsky by another progressive prosecutor after State Attorney Ayala won her primary and did not meet Ms. Krinsky or have a substantive conversation with her until after State Attorney Ayala was elected.  Entirely consistent with all of State Attorney Ayala’s prior statements, she did not speak to anyone, including Ms. Krinsky, about the death penalty until it became a question for her after the murder of Lt. Debra Clayton.  Ms. Krinsky, a long-time federal prosecutor who has helped and continues to help prosecutors around the country, is just one of the people State Attorney Ayala is occasionally in contact with as a way to ensure that she is getting the benefit of hearing from outside prosecutors and individuals.
"I note that your statement that State Attorney Ayala’s “legal services are being funded entirely by the taxpayers of Florida” seems intentionally hyperbolic.  It is my understanding that State Attorney funding comes from a number of sources. 
"And just to ensure that your reporting is put in proper context, in Florida, there is ample precedent for public officials using outside counsel.  It has been reported that over the last six years, Governor Scott and others in his Administration have spent more than $40 million a year - totaling more than $230 million - on outside counsel for various litigation.
"What is most important to me is that my team, operating with significantly reduced rates, is ensuring that every penny that is being spent, is being spent so State Attorney Ayala can do the job she was elected to do."


About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.