PR firm bills State Attorney Aramis Ayala $285 per hour

State attorney won't explain role of public relations firm

ORLANDO, Fla. – A public relations specialist based in Washington, D.C., is billing Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala's office $285 an hour, invoices obtained by News 6 show.

Kivvit, a public relations firm founded by former President Barack Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod, is providing "litigation support" to Ayala in her lawsuit against Gov.Rick Scott, a News 6 investigation revealed.

Ayala has repeatedly declined to answer News 6's questions about why she and her private lawyers hired Kivvit, nor has she disclosed what specific services the company is providing to her taxpayer-funded office.

Since Ayala filed her lawsuit against Scott in March, Kivvit has billed the state attorney's office $17,150.

Those fees for public relations work comprise about 5 percent of the $316,141 in legal expenses Ayala's office accrued through May.

Invoices show Kivvit managing director Tracy Schmaler billed the state attorney's office for 37 hours of work over 31 days in April and May.

Before producing the Kivvit invoices for News 6 through a public records request, Ayala's staff redacted a column on the paperwork that might provide more details about the services Schmaler performed.

The state attorney's office claims information concealed by black boxes on the invoices is confidential due to Ayala's ongoing lawsuit with the governor.

Florida public record laws exempt information prepared at an attorney's express direction that reflect a mental impression, conclusion, litigation strategy or legal theory while the case is active.

"It would be improper and unethical to reveal attorney-client details," Ayala's lawyer Roy Austin told News 6 in response to questions about Kivvit. "Enlisting outside consultants to assist in litigation is a common practice, and courts across this country have long recognized the value of employing litigation support experts like Ms. Schmaler."

[View invoices below] 

Schmaler, who worked as a U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson under former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, did not respond to an email from News 6 seeking comment.

Schmaler's hourly rate of $285 is significantly higher than Ayala's, who earns the equivalent of $74 per hour as a salaried state attorney.

The public relations specialist's hourly rate is closer to that of Ayala's private lawyers, who agreed to charge the prosecutor’s office a "blended rate" of $395 per hour.

Ayala has declined to answer News 6’s questions about how much she expects the litigation to cost taxpayers, or what portion of the $29.7 million budget for the state attorney's office will be used to fund it.

More than $27 million of that budget is allocated for employees' salaries and benefits, state records show, with about $1.5 million earmarked for operating expenditures.

Emails obtained by News 6 show Ayala scheduled a conference call on May 18 to discuss "budget issues" with Schmaler and Austin.

Ayala did not respond to questions submitted to her office inquiring about the conference call.  No public records detailing the conversation exist, staff from the State Attorney's Office said.

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.

Ayala claims the governor violated the state's constitution when he reassigned two dozen potential death penalty cases from her office to that of a neighboring state's attorney.

Scott made the move after Ayala held a news conference March 16 announcing she would never seek the death penalty in any case prosecuted by her office.

The governor's in-house counsel argued that Florida law gives Scott the power to reassign cases for any "good and sufficient reason."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.