By Mike Schneider, The Associated Press on January 23, 2024.
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Disney this week requested a second delay in a state court case involving its legal battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointees over who controls Walt Disney World’s governing district, as the company accused them and the governor’s office of stonewalling requests for documents that are part of the litigation.
The entertainment giant’s request came as a district employee said in a deposition that the takeover of the district’s board by DeSantis’ appointees last year, and its subsequent politicization, has caused around 50 of its 370 employees to leave. The board has a scheduled monthly meeting Wednesday.
“There is a very, very, very politically motivated board, and I know we try not to acknowledge that, but that is a huge reason why a lot of people are leaving,” Erin O’Donnell, the district’s public records administrator, said in a deposition, sections of which were filed in court last week. “Other people may have had their own issues with leadership … but a lot of people have left just due to the entire shakeup of the district.”
The governing district provides municipal services such as planning, mosquito control and firefighting in the roughly 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in central Florida that make up Disney World.
DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature took control of the district’s board last year, almost a year after Disney publicly opposed the state’s so-called don’t say gay law, which bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by DeSantis, who had been running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination until this week when he suspended his campaign.
Disney, DeSantis and the district have taken their fight over who controls the district to state and federal courts.
O’Donnell’s partial deposition in the state court case was filed as part of Disney’s arguments that the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and the governor’s office have been dragging their feet in producing requested documents. In its request for a delay, Disney argued that it needs another six months to prepare for filing a motion since it hasn’t gotten the documents in a timely manner.
The district said in court papers that it had provided the appropriate documents. It accused Disney of going on “a fishing expedition to score political points” and “accusing the district of misbehavior when there is none.”
Disney’s motion will argue against a request by the district for the judge in the state case to make an immediate ruling without the need for a full-blown trial. The judge previously granted a delay last year at Disney’s request for the same reason.
In court papers, Disney said DeSantis’ office hadn’t produced a single requested document and “relied on excuses that are as inconsistent as they are unbelievable.” Nick Meros, an attorney for the governor’s office, said Tuesday that his office doesn’t comment on pending litigation. In an email to Disney attorneys, filed in court papers, he said Disney’s requests were “broad and unwieldy.”
O’Donnell’s testimony provides insight into the turmoil since the takeover of the district, which previously was controlled by Disney supporters. The departure of longtime senior leaders has hampered day-to-day operations, and morale has taken a hit, she said.
Some procedures that had been ad hoc have been formalized by the new leadership, she added, but the attention given to the shakeup and the backgrounds of the DeSantis appointees have been distracting. Among those appointees is Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty who has been accused of hypocrisy after admitting to a sexual relationship she and her husband had with another woman even as they publicly opposed LGBTQ+ rights.
Last week Sarasota police cleared her husband, Christian Ziegler, of rape allegations involving the woman but said they asked prosecutors to charge him with illegally recording video of the sexual encounter he had with her. Earlier this month the Republican Party of Florida ousted Christian Ziegler as chairman of the state party.
“It’s just very hard to go through our day-to-days not hearing about all the extra news happening,” O’Donnell said. “So I think that just, in their own personal lives, and what they’ve done, or what affiliations they’re a part of, have just been extra noise, so to speak, at the district.”
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