State Attorney Ayala dodges questions about lawsuit funding

Ayala claims governor overstepped his authority

By Mike DeForest - Investigative Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - As her office's legal bills pile up, State Attorney Aramis Ayala refuses to disclose how much she expects her litigation against Gov. Rick Scott will cost taxpayers.

Ayala also has declined to answer many other questions posed by News 6 about that litigation, including her attorney's reasons for hiring a public relations firm.

This week, one of the private law firms representing Ayala submitted a $39,327 invoice to the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office for legal work conducted in April, records show.

That Tampa-based firm and another law firm in Washington D.C. have billed Ayala nearly $150,000 since she filed the lawsuit against Scott in March. Additional invoices are expected to be submitted for legal services provided in April and May.

Some of those legal fees are being used to hire a Washington D.C. public relations firm, a News 6 investigation revealed.

[FULL VIDEO: News 6 reporter Mike DeForest questions Ayala]

Ayala claims the governor overstepped his authority by reassigning nearly two dozen homicide cases to another Florida state attorney who was willing to seek the death penalty.

In March, Ayala announced she would not seek the death penalty in any case prosecuted by her office.

Emails obtained by News 6 show Ayala scheduled a conference call on May 18 to discuss "budget issues" with Tracy Schmaler,  a managing director of Kivvit public relations firm, and Roy Austin, one of Ayala's private attorneys.

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.

Since May 10, News 6 has submitted more than a half dozen requests to Ayala's office in writing and by phone seeking an on-camera interview with the state attorney.

Originally, Ayala's spokeswoman told News 6 the state attorney was declining interview requests until the Florida Supreme Court ruled on her litigation. At the same time, Ayala was featured on several national TV programs.

On May 24, News 6 submitted more than a dozen questions to Ayala's office by email related to the litigation funding:

·    Did the SAO [State Attorney's Office] anticipate the law firms of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis and Zuckerman Spaeder would bill your office more than $102,000 in the first two weeks of litigation?
·    How much does the SAO expect the litigation to cost?
·    How much has the SAO budgeted for the litigation?
·    What specific portion of the SAO’s budget is being used to pay for the litigation (i.e., the SAO’s $1.5 million “operating expenditures”)?
·    How does the SAO justify the use of taxpayer dollars for this litigation?
·    Does the SAO anticipate that any third-party (such as a private individual or a nonprofit organization) will provide financial contributions to the SAO’s litigation against the governor? Or will the SAO cover the entire cost of the litigation?
·    Did the SAO authorize Mr. Austin’s law firm to obtain the services of Kivvit public relations firm? If so, why?
·    What specific services is Kivvit providing to the SAO’s litigation?
·    Did Kivvit Managing Director Tracy Schmaler write a statement on Ms. Ayala’s behalf to be read to supporters on the March bus trip to Tallahassee (as suggested by Miriam Krinsky in a 3/29 email?) If so, was it done as part of Kivvit’s paid work on behalf of the SAO? And if so, does the SAO consider that work to be a part of the SAO’s litigation against the governor? And if so, why was Ms. Krinsky (who represents Fair and Just Prosecution) dictating the work of the public relations firm that is being funded by the SAO?
·    Will Kivvit be doing any future work on behalf of the SAO, and if so, what?
·    Is Miriam Krinsky and/or Stefanie Faucher or their respective organizations (Fair and Just Prosecution/Fair Punishment Project/8th Amendment Project) playing any role in the SAO’s litigation against the governor?

Neither Ayala nor any representatives from her office ever responded to News 6's questions.

As Ayala was entering an event hosted by the NAACP West Volusia Branch at a public park June 2, a News 6 photographer asked the state attorney if she would be willing to speak with a reporter.

"I'm going to meet with the people I'm here to see and make certain they get the priority since they invited me," Ayala said. "If I get a moment, I'll be happy to speak with him."

When the three-hour event concluded around 10:15 p.m., Ayala walked briskly to her car without stopping as a News 6 reporter requested a five-minute interview.

"Five minutes?" Ayala asked. "Unfortunately, I've got kids. You know we're here way late tonight."

As Ayala walked to the passenger door of her car, the state attorney erroneously claimed she had responded to News 6's prior inquiries.

"I think you have gotten answers," Ayala said. "I don't know any questions you haven't really gotten an answer to."

Before Ayala sat down in her car, a News 6 reporter attempted to ask Ayala a single question about who is paying for her litigation with the governor.

"At this point, you're asking several questions, like there are other people paying for it," Ayala replied. "There are no private entities -- no third parties. No one is paying for it. We haven't made any payments. And I'll let you know when we do."

As Ayala climbed into the vehicle, she indicated to News 6 that she was willing to answer the reporter's questions at a later date.

"Set up the meeting and we'll talk," Ayala said. "We will make it happen."

The following day, News 6 submitted yet another written request for an interview with the state attorney. 

Since Ayala had previously ignored more than six similar requests, News 6 provided a deadline for the state attorney to acknowledge this most recent request and verify whether the interview would occur.

"Late Friday evening I did indicate I would sit down and talk to you," Ayala wrote in an email to News 6 three days later.  "The imposition of your arbitrary deadline of 1 p.m. Monday closed the door to that opportunity."

In a written statement, Ayala addressed only one of News 6's previously submitted written questions:

"It is more than appropriate to enlist outside legal experts in significant litigation, and when Governor Scott violated the Florida Constitution by overreaching into our criminal justice system, he left me little choice but to do just that. I have attorneys and staff in my office who work diligently to keep our community safe. I made a decision early on that I would not allow anything to distract them from their vital public safety mission, including a governor who wants to pursue his political agenda at the expense of prosecutorial independence. The State of Florida, under Governor Scott, has spent more than $231 million on outside legal experts in the last several years -- I can promise I will be much more judicious with how I use taxpayer dollars to protect Floridians and our criminal justice system. The retainer agreement with private counsel fully defines the scope of representation.  And as I have said numerous times, I have consulted with various individuals both inside and outside the office of the State Attorney and will continue to do so, but ultimately, the decisions made are my own."

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