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Several powerful GOP political operatives, including former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, will have to turn over a bevy of records, including any showing payments or messages sent to far-right blogger Jacob Engels, as part of a libel suit filed by a former Republican House candidate against Engels.
Elizabeth Cornell, who lost her race for a Central Florida House seat last year, is suing Engels, a Proud Boys associate and publisher of the Central Florida Post, after the website published articles accusing Cornell of carrying on an extramarital affair and preying on an elderly client in her financial advising business.
As part of the suit, Cornell and her attorney, Ricardo Reyes, seek to obtain a slew of records and to subpoena nearly two dozen individuals, including several GOP operatives and elected officials.
Orange County Circuit Judge James Craner ruled during a hearing last week that a pair of high-powered consulting firms, Rapid Loop Consulting and Right Aim Media, will have to comply with Cornell’s requests. James Blair, the firms’ founder, provided documents to Engels that he later used to write the two posts attacking Cornell that are the subject of her suit, one of his former employees said earlier this year during a deposition.
Blair’s firms produced mail ads that used the same graphics featuring Cornell’s image that Engels published on his blog. The mailers were paid for by a committee operated by Stafford Jones, a Gainesville Republican consultant.
Blair’s companies also “text-blasted” a link of Engels’ blog posts to voters, Reyes said.
An experienced operative, Blair led campaigns for governor, U.S. Senate, and Congress across the country in 2022, according to his profile on the American Association of Political Consultants’ website. He also served as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Ron DeSantis and was a senior advisor during his 2018 campaign.
In addition to producing records, Blair is to be deposed in the libel suit.
Blair is a longtime consultant for Corcoran, who previously served as education commissioner and is now the president of New College of Florida, according to a court filing arguing for the release of the records.
Corcoran also has been ordered to produce records in response to the suit, including communications with Engels about Cornell and evidence of payment sent or received related to Cornell or the posts referenced in her suit.
Reyes argued in a court filing that Corcoran should have to comply with a subpoena because he “was directly and personally involved,” in helping the eventual winner of the race to represent the Lake County-based state House district, Rep. Taylor Yarkosky.
But Corcoran’s attorney, former Senate President Bill Galvano, countered that Reyes’ request was too broad and the information he seeks could be obtained from other sources. Corcoran does not have first-hand knowledge of the issues raised in the suit, he wrote in a court filing.
“In addition to the undue burden that would be placed on Mr. Corcoran in requiring him to search for the broad scope of materials requested, the subpoena seeks information that is clearly intended to ’embarrass and oppress’ this non-party,” Galvano wrote.
Because the documents are to be produced as part of a civil suit, rather than a criminal case, they will be provided to the plaintiff but won’t necessarily become public after they are filed.
Reyes also is seeking records from Jones, including his communications with the campaign of Yarkosky of Montverde, who defeated Cornell in the Republican primary, and with more than a dozen political committees and firms. Jones has filed an objection to the request, which the judge is to consider during a hearing scheduled for next month.
Blair’s firms worked for several Florida House candidates during the 2022 election cycle, including Yarkosky, whose campaign paid them more than $31,000 for services such as advertising and consulting. GOP candidates and political committees across the state paid $927,347 to Rapid Loop and Right Aim during the last election, state campaign finance records show.
Alan Perlman, a Fort Lauderdale-based attorney working for Blair and his firms, argued against the release of the records last week during a hearing, describing Reyes’ attempts to obtain them as “improper” and “outlandish.”
“This has nothing to do with Engels and everything to do with a political rival harassing another political rival,” Perlman said. “They’re not entitled to our methodology, our techniques and our process when our candidate wins and another candidate loses.”
But Reyes denied his inquiry was a “fishing expedition” and said his client is not seeking trade secrets.
“I think this information goes directly to the question of whether or not Engels was acting with malice — what did he know, when did he know it, did he know the information was false and did their communications indicate they were taking information out of context deliberately from the public record to misconstrue it,” Reyes said.
Craner said the records sought by Cornell and Reyes are “voluminous but limited,” noting they had honed in on the consultants’ communications with Engels. He granted the request, adding that he could review the records privately to ensure no trade secrets would be exposed, as Perlman said his client feared.
Cornell first filed the libel suit against Engels in August 2022, shortly before she lost to Yarkosky in the Republican primary. She and Reyes also have sought records from Engels, but he has not provided the documents they requested nor answers to their questions, months after they requested them, Reyes told Craner during a hearing in August.
Craner ordered the arrest of Engels, who was held in contempt of court, if he did not provide the records and information within 10 days, and a warrant was issued for Engels on Sept. 21.
Engels has not been arrested, though the judge’s order still stands.
That same day the warrant for Engels’ arrest was filed, he filed a four-page, response to the defendant’s inquiries, acknowledging speaking to some of the other people cited in the suit, including Yarkosky.
But he said his blog posts largely were based on public records, including liens and lawsuits filed against Cornell, and he described himself as “an independent journalist and publisher.”
“Jacob Engels was responsible for the authoring, publication, and publishing of the posts,” Engels wrote to the court.