Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is calling for an investigation into the deal that dissolved Disney’s now-dissolved special roles transferred to a state-owned company before the board took control.
In a letter to Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, DeSantis says the deal suffers from “serious legal weaknesses” and questions whether it is valid under “Florida’s civil and criminal laws and ethical requirements.” It points to “inadequate information” before the deal was struck, “improper delegation of authority” and “ethical violations, such as conflicts of interest and business.”
The letter was sent to DeSantis and board members in response to learning that Disney quietly pushed through an agreement in February that would have essentially kept the new board from the superintendent unable to maintain installed roads and other basic infrastructure. The 30-year deal includes approval for another theme park and building restrictions that bar the DeSantis-controlled board of regents from making changes to Disney’s disjointed properties without the company’s approval.
The feud began last year when Disney froze political donations in the state in response to the so-called “No Gay” law, which prevents discussion of general identity and sexual orientation in school for young students. DeSantis dictated by signing legislation dissolving special independent districts that were created prior to 1968. The privilege allows Disney special tax district privileges of its state government, including borrowing money for infrastructure projects carrying bonds, exemption from military or ordinance and fees related to emergency services and development planning. The district was kept in place when the board was struck by DeSantis in part because it was able to end its massive effects on neighboring Orange and Osceola counties, which owed over $1 billion in debt from Disney.
But before the president took power, the previous board of trustees in public meetings passed an agreement on the plan to transfer the company’s future power to Disney. At its first meeting on Wednesday, the new board decided to hire an outside legal counsel to examine the agreement.
“These sweeping and self-imposed provisions are intended to destroy recently passed laws, undermine Florida’s legislative process and undermine the will of Floridians,” Mr. DeSantis wrote in a letter on Monday. “Any legal or ethical violations should be reported to the proper authorities.”
DeSantis says there should be an “investigation and review” of the previous board’s industry and any “involvement of Walt Disney World employees and agents” or “financial gain or benefit from” the company passing on the deal. He argues that any violation should be “reported to the proper authorities.”
Disney kept the deal on solid ground. In a statement last week, he said, “All agreements signed between Disney and the District are appropriate, and have been negotiated and approved in an open, public forum, in compliance with Florida’s Sunshine State law.” Since the meeting discussed striking a deal with Disney next week, the board will likely challenge the agreement in court.
Asked at Monday’s annual shareholder meeting about steps taken to protect shareholders from a legal battle, Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger highlighted the financial significance of the company’s operations in the state. He revealed plans to invest over $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next decade.
“We estimate that those funds will create 13,000 new Disney jobs and thousands of other indirect jobs, and will bring even more to the state and generate more taxes,” said Iger. “And that’s why we’re on this side, because any action that only supports those efforts to replace the position, not only sounds anti-business, it sounds anti-Florida, and I’ll just leave it at that.
The proposals were the first from Iger or the company directly addressing Disney’s feud with DeSantis. Disney has approximately 75,000 employees in the state. It appears the company is willing to leverage its position as the state’s largest taxpayer and driver of major tourism dollars to defend its theme park autonomy.
Iger also supported Disney’s decision to criticize Florida’s contentious education bill. He said that it is in the best interest of the company because it “directly affects”[ed] our business and our people,” in a nod to former chief executive Bob Chapek’s slow and muted response to the law, which brought employee workers to the scene of the walkout.
“Those who stood in silence still bear the brunt of indifference to some extent,” Iger said, pointing to societies that remained silent on human rights during the Civil War and World War II. “As long as I am at work, I continue to be guided by modesty and a sense of respect and I trust our instincts, which when we spend, we weigh because the matter really belongs to our business and to the people who work for us.”
Disney did not respond to a request for comment.
Caitlin Huston contributed to this report.