State Attorney ends legal fight over death penalty

Aramis Ayala dismisses federal lawsuit against governor

Aramis Ayala.

ORLANDO, Fla. – State Attorney Aramis Ayala has voluntarily dismissed a federal lawsuit she had previously filed against Gov. Rick Scott over his decision to reassign 30 potential death penalty cases from her office.
Ayala originally filed the lawsuit in April, weeks after she announced her office would not seek the death penalty in any case.
The federal lawsuit claimed that by "summarily removing Ayala from her position due to a disagreement over her prosecutorial discretion," the governor unconstitutionally deprived the "democratically elected" state attorney of her position.
In a separate legal action, Ayala petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to review whether Scott had the authority under state law to transfer those murder cases Brad King, the state attorney in a neighboring judicial district.
Last month, in a 5-2 opinion, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ayala's blanket prohibition against the death penalty provided the governor with "good and sufficient reason" to remove those cases from her office.
Ayala did not challenge the Florida Supreme Court's decision within a 15-day deadline to request a rehearing, records show.
On Sept. 14, a U.S. district judge granted Ayala's request to dismiss the simultaneous federal lawsuit.  
The state attorney did not explain in court papers why she chose to drop the litigation alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution.
Following the Florida Supreme Court ruling, Ayala reversed her office's policy against the death penalty, announcing that she would seek capital punishment in murder cases if a panel of seven attorneys in her office unanimously agree it is warranted.
Invoices show Ayala spent $378,314 of taxpayer money on her litigation against the governor, including expenses related to her now-dismissed federal lawsuit.
PR firm billing records revealed

In addition to hiring private attorneys based in Tampa and Washington D.C., a News 6 investigation revealed that Ayala paid $20,285 to Kivvit, a high-powered public relations firm.
Ayala has repeatedly refused to explain what specific services Kivvit provided, only to say that the Washington, D.C., public relations firm conducted "litigation support."
In July, after News 6 requested invoices Kivvit billed to Ayala's office, the state attorney provided heavily redacted copies of the public records.  Large black boxes concealed many details on billing statements.  

View Kivvit invoices, here.
At the time, Ayala's office claimed the redacted information was exempt from release under Florida public records laws because it reflected her legal team's "mental impression, conclusion, litigation strategy or legal theory."
After Ayala formally ended her litigation against the governor, News 6 once again requested un-redacted copies of the public relations firm invoices.
Those newly released billing records reveal very little information about Ayala's legal strategy in her lawsuit against the governor.
Likewise, the invoices do not provide many specific details about the services provided by the public relations firm at taxpayer expense.
On March 29, Kivvit managing director Tracy Schmaler billed Ayala's office for two hours of work at a cost of $570.
On the invoice activity report, Schmaler wrote, "Organized calendar for upcoming events and task; call with stakeholders and legal team; discussion on legal strategy."
That same day, Schmaler received an email from one of Ayala's advisors asking the public relations specialist to craft a short statement that would be read to the state attorney's supporters who were attending a rally in Tallahassee, a News 6 investigation revealed
Ayala has repeatedly declined to discuss whether Schmaler drafted that message on her behalf, and if so, whether it was part of the PR firm's taxpayer-funded duties.
Over a four-month period, Kivvit billed the state attorney's office for such tasks as "outreach to stakeholders", "researching and detailing case information on previous murder cases", "planning and discussions around amicus filings", and "(editing) litigation materials for legal team", invoices from the public relations firm show.
"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," Ayala's attorney Roy Austin previously told News 6.

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.