TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll could be forced to testify in a sensational criminal case that has widened from allegations of illegal taping to improper relationships within her office.
A circuit court judge on Thursday rejected a request by the administration of Gov. Rick Scott to shield Carroll from being questioned in the case involving one of her former aides.
Judge Frank Sheffield told Scott's general counsel that ex-aide Carletha Cole is entitled in a criminal case to defend herself. The ex-aide was arrested in 2011, accused of giving a reporter a secret recording containing a conversation between Cole and Carroll's chief of staff.
“There's not a person on the face of this earth that can't be a witness in some case if they have relevant information,'' Sheffield said.
But Sheffield made it clear that he's not to going to allow Carroll _ or other top employees in the governor's office _ to be questioned until Cole's lawyers put in writing why their testimony is relevant.
“I'm not going to let people hide behind their office if they are involved in the case; on the other hand, just because she's the lieutenant governor, I'm not going to let him depose her if it's just a fishing expedition,'' he said.
Cole, who was fired last year, is charged with a third-degree felony and could face up to five years in prison.
This summer her lawyers filed court documents in which Cole claimed to have found Carroll in a “compromising position'' with travel aide Beatriz Ramos inside's Carroll's office. The former aide also alleged that Carroll's chief of staff secretly recorded conversations routinely at the direction of those working for Scott and that the trash can at Cole's desk might have been deliberately set ablaze following an argument between her and Ramos.
That court filing also alleged that Cole was ordered by Ramos to find adjoining hotel rooms for Carroll and Ramos when they traveled.
Carroll, a former Navy officer who is also married and a mother of three, has called the allegations “false and absurd'' and said they were an attempt by Cole to get her criminal charges dropped. A spokesman for Scott has previously denied that the governor's office directed people to secretly record conversations.
Last month, lawyers for Cole served subpoenas on both Carroll and Ramos. That led to a request from the Scott administration to shield the two from having to answer questions.
Jesse Panuccio, the general counsel for Scott, contended that Carroll and other employees in the governor's office were being targeted with “scurrilous allegations'' as part of a media campaign to make them look bad.
“There is no question that this is calculated campaign of harassment against the office of the lieutenant governor,'' Panuccio told the judge.
But Stephen Webster, a lawyer for Cole, said that Carroll was an integral part of the case. He said that prosecutors will attempt to paint Cole as a “bad egg'' and unprofessional employee who released the audio recording because she was disgruntled. He said that Carroll had “direct knowledge'' of the facts in the case, including whether or not Scott's office directed people to record conversations.
“She's directly involved in this case whether she likes it or not,'' Webster said about Carroll.
Sheffield made it clear that he was frustrated by the arguing so far over evidence in the case and that it was time to move it ahead to trial.
“This case is out of control, well, I intend to rein it into control,'' he told both sides.
Sheffield earlier on Thursday was also asked by attorneys of The Florida Times-Union to block a subpoena of reporter Matt Dixon.
It was Dixon who allegedly received the audio recording from Cole. The newspaper placed on its website the recording between Cole and John Konkus, the chief of staff for Carroll. Konkus can be heard saying that Scott's then-chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, is afraid of Carroll. Konkus also complained that Scott “is not leading.''
Attorneys for the newspaper told Sheffield that prosecutors can get what they need to convict Cole without questioning Dixon. Under Florida law, journalists have limited protection from testifying in cases they are involved with professionally.
Assistant State Attorney John Hutchins argued that the protection did not apply in cases involving those who witness crimes. He told the judge that Cole and Dixon exchanged emails and she sent him the audio recording.
“This is a criminal case, this is evidence of a crime,'' Hutchins told the judge.
Sheffield said he would rule later on the request.