An Orange County judge on Tuesday dismissed a charge of breaking the state’s public meeting laws against former state representative-turned-lobbyist Chris Dorworth.
Judge Tanya Davis Wilson, who was set to start jury selection Thursday, ruled Dorworth’s First Amendment right to free speech was violated by the misdemeanor charge against him.
“A private citizen has a protected constitutional right to communicate with public officials or members of a public body about matters that may come before that body,” Wilson wrote.
Dorworth’s attorney, Richard Hornsby of Orlando, said, “I’m pleased. I thought this was a flawed prosecution from the beginning.” Orange/Osceola State Attorney Jeff Ashton said he “respectfully disagrees” with Wilson and intends to appeal the decision.
“The entire state will benefit from this issue being further studied and resolved through the appellate process,” Ashton said in a news release.
Dorworth was accused of acting as a go-between between two ex-members of the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority in a plot to oust then-director Max Crumit.
According to the state’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws, authority business could be discussed only in public, such as a board meeting. Conviction is punishable by a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
Dorworth, according to an Orange County grand jury indictment, passed information between Scott Batterson and Marco Pena, who were on the board and were part of a 3-2 vote in August 2013 to seek a replacement for Crumit, who quit a month later.
Pena earlier this year pleaded guilty to breaking the sunshine law and paid a $500 fine. Batterson last week pleaded no contest to the same charge.
Hornsby said the proper people to go after were Pena and Batterson, not Dorworth, who works for Ballard Partners, based in Tallahassee.
Dorworth’s prosecution was believed to be the first time a conduit was charged under the Sunshine law in the state, officials with Florida’s First Amendment Foundation said.
Batterson, who met with state investigators recently and gave a recorded statement, called Dorworth a “friend and confidant.”
“I bounced just about everything I did off of him and got his advice,” said Batterson, who is free on $10,000 bond after being sentenced to 7-1/2 years in state prison Friday on two bribery-related charges.
Though he conceded that Dorworth may have “manipulated” him, Batterson said their conversations never violated the Sunshine laws.
“I don’t know if he’s talking to Pena or not,” Batterson said. “He never told me once he was being a conduit. And I never told him to talk to Pena. And quite frankly any time anything would go toward that he would say, “Ah, don’t go there. Don’t do that.’ I would say OK …”