Attorneys try to stop DeSantis appointees from giving depositions in Disney lawsuit

Posted 3/21/24

Attorneys for the Walt Disney World governing district taken over last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ supporters don’t want the governor’s appointees answering questions under oath as part of a …

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Attorneys try to stop DeSantis appointees from giving depositions in Disney lawsuit

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Attorneys for the Walt Disney World governing district taken over last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis' allies don't want the governor's appointees answering questions under oath as part of its state lawsuit against Disney.

District attorneys on Monday filed a motion for a protective order that would stop the DeSantis-appointed board members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District from having to give videotaped depositions to Disney attorneys.

Disney and the DeSantis appointees are fighting in state court over who controls the governing district for Disney World. The district had been controlled by Disney supporters before last year's takeover — which was sparked by the company's opposition to Florida's so-called “Don't Say Gay” law. It provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things, and was controlled by Disney supporters for most of its five decades.

District attorneys cite the “apex doctrine,” which generally provides that high-level government officers shouldn't be subject to depositions unless opposing parties have exhausted all other means of obtaining information. The doctrine is used in just a handful of U.S. states, including Florida.

“Disney cannot demonstrate that the individual board members have unique, personal knowledge that would be relevant to any of the claims, counterclaims or defenses in this action to overcome the apex doctrine,” district attorneys said in their motion. “Disney's assault-style effort to depose all the board members is simply an improper form of harassment of these high-level government officials.”

The motion includes statements from the board members who claim that being forced to give depositions would “impede” their ability to fulfill their duties and divert resources and attention away from overseeing the district.

Earlier this month, Disney gave notice of its intention to question under oath six current and past DeSantis-appointed board members for the purpose of “discovery,” or the process of gathering information for the case. The entertainment giant has said previously that the district has stymied its efforts to get documents and other information, and Disney filed a public records lawsuit against the district earlier this year, claiming the district's response to its requests were “unreasonably delayed” and “woefully inadequate.”

Since the takeover last year, the district has faced an exodus of experienced staffers, with many in exit surveys complaining that the governing body has been politicized since the changeover. Just this month, the district's administrator left to become a county elections supervisor at half the $400,000 salary he was earning at the district, and the district's DeSantis-appointed board chairman departed the following week.

A fight between DeSantis and Disney began in 2022 after the company, facing significant internal and external pressure, publicly opposed a state law that critics have called “Don’t Say Gay.” The 2022 law bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades and was championed by DeSantis, who used Disney as a punching bag in speeches until he suspended his presidential campaign this year.

As punishment, DeSantis took over the district through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and appointed a new board of supervisors.

Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees, claiming the company’s free speech rights were violated for speaking out against the legislation. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in January. Disney has appealed.

Before control of the district changed hands from Disney allies to DeSantis appointees early last year, the Disney supporters on its board signed agreements with Disney shifting control over design and construction at Disney World to the company. The new DeSantis appointees claimed the “eleventh-hour deals” neutered their powers, and the district sued the company in state court in Orlando to have the contracts voided.

Disney has filed counterclaims that include asking the state court to declare the agreements valid and enforceable.

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Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP.

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