An ongoing criminal case against a former top aide to Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll is transforming into a swirl of allegations about improper relationships, widespread illegal taping and other incidents inside Carroll's office.
The allegations, which Carroll denies, were included in a court filing made late last week by the attorney representing Carletha Cole, who was arrested last October on charges that she gave an illegally taped conversation with another Carroll aide to a newspaper reporter.
Cole's attorneys made the filing in response to prosecutors' attempts to seal some evidence in the case.
In the filing, Cole contends that she witnessed Carroll and a top aide, Beatriz Ramos, in a "compromising position" inside Carroll's office, that Carroll's chief of staff secretly recorded conversations routinely at the direction of those working for Gov. Rick Scott, and that the trash can at Cole's desk might have been deliberately set ablaze following an argument between her and Ramos.
Cole's attorney, Steve Webster, told NBC 6 that the office rules were quickly changed after the incident.
"After my client walked in and inadvertently saw what she saw, the very next day the rules were changed by the lieutenant governor in a staff meeting that if you knocked on the door you didn't enter the office until you were invited in," he said.
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Cole also said Ramos was living at Carroll's home and at one point she was ordered by Ramos to find adjoining hotel rooms for Carroll and Ramos when they traveled. Cole said that she was "scolded" by an agent with Carroll's security team when she placed Ramos next door to Carroll when the lieutenant governor and her husband traveled last summer to Puerto Rico. The agent told her to not do it again, Cole says, although he did not explain why.
Carroll, a former Navy officer who is also a mother of three, says the allegations are all lies.
"That's totally false and absurd," said Carroll, a former Republican legislator who was chosen by Scott as his running mate in 2010.
Carroll said the allegations are an attempt by Cole and her attorney to get the criminal charges against Cole dropped. Cole is charged with a third-degree felony and could get up to five years in prison.
"They are trying to pull at straws," Carroll said. "All this stuff you mentioned doesn't excuse what happened."
Ramos, whose title is special assistant to the lieutenant governor, did not return a phone call to her office.
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Webster stood by the allegations included in the filing: "That's the truth. It is what it is."
Webster said Cole is a grandmother and minister who had never been in previous legal trouble. He said the filing was made to show that Carroll, Ramos and Carroll's chief of staff, John Konkus, have reasons to make Cole look bad because they could be witnesses at Cole's trial.
"It's a desperate prosecution that is politically motivated," he said.
Nova Southeastern University political science professor Charles Zelden called the case the politics of distraction.
"Except of course for Lieutenant Governor Carroll herself in which case it's also an embarassment," he said. "True or not it's embarrassing at the very least. What it's pointing out is the dysfunction of her office."
Webster works for the law firm of Steven Andrews, who has clashed with Scott in the past. He filed a lawsuit during the 2010 campaign attempting to obtain a video deposition Scott had given in a case against a chain of health clinics he helped start.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation that resulted in Cole's arrest began last September after the agency received a complaint that a secret audio recording had been made in Carroll's office. The agency reported its findings to prosecutor Willie Meggs, the state attorney for the Tallahassee area.
It is against Florida law to record someone without consent, but there have been legal questions about recordings made in public buildings.
The Florida Times-Union obtained a copy of the conversation between Konkus, Carroll's chief of staff, and Cole, a senior program analyst who also acted as a spokeswoman for Carroll.
The Times-Union placed the recording on its website. Konkus can be heard saying that the governor's then- chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, is afraid of Carroll. Konkus also complained that Scott "is not leading." Konkus worked for U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, before joining the Scott administration in May.
In her court filing, Cole states that she went to Carroll's office door, which was closed. She says she walked in and found Carroll and Ramos "in what can only be described as a compromising position." Carroll denies this ever happened.
Cole was fired about the time the investigation began after publicly speaking out about infighting in Carroll's office.
A sworn statement by an FDLE agent says that investigators looked into Cole's emails and cellphone records and discovered that she had sent the recording to the Times-Union reporter.
Konkus, who said the recording was made without his permission, told investigators it was made sometime between June and August 2011. He said he was working with Cole on Carroll's website.
But Cole's attorney maintains in his filing with the court that recording went on all the time in the lieutenant governor's office and that Scott's communications teams instructed staff members to "covertly" record conversations in the office, especially with members of the press for accuracy.
They also maintain that Konkus joked about having a "smart pen" that could record conversations without anyone knowing about it.
When reached by email, Konkus said he could not comment on the case and directed questions to Scott's press office.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Scott, called the allegations about widespread taping and the rest of Cole's assertions "outrageous."
"The woman is facing a third-degree felony charge," Burgess said. "Her allegations should be considered in that light."
Webster made the court filing after Meggs' office filed a motion to keep confidential two documents that the defense wanted to use: A one-page report summarizing a polygraph test given to Cole where she talked about Carroll and Ramos and an FDLE report regarding the trash can fire in Carroll's office.
The prosecutor on the case would not comment about the motion. But the official filing states that the documents should be kept confidential in order to protect a "compelling government interest" and to avoid harming third parties. The state's motion also contends the documents were irrelevant but could pose a threat to Cole receiving a fair trial because they would generate media interest.
A judge held a hearing last Friday where he ruled that the polygraph report would be kept confidential but the FDLE report would remain public. That report details a March 17 incident where Ramos threw a cigar into Cole's trashcan. The cigar started a fire that was put out by another employee.
Ramos told an FDLE investigator that she had taken a couple of puffs on the cigar at a St. Patrick Day party, put it out and wrapped it up in a paper towel and returned with it to her office at the Florida Capitol. She then put it in Cole's trashcan. The FDLE investigator concluded it was an accident, but Cole's attorney questioned the account, noting that both a cigar and a match were found in the trash can after the fire.