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October 22, 2018

Timeshares

Engineering the law: Marriott Vacations Worldwide's class-action timeshare battle

Jason Garcia | 10/26/2017

As Mendoza deliberated, however, Marriott began fighting the suit on another front. The company turned to the Florida Legislature, acting through the American Resort Development Association, the trade group that represents the timeshare industry. At the time, ARDA’s chairman was Steve Weisz, Marriott Vacations’ president and CEO.

ARDA had already begun working with a pair of legislators — Rep. Mike La Rosa, a Republican from Osceola County, and Sen. Travis Hutson, a Republican from St. Johns County — on legislation for the 2017 legislative session. That bill dealt with how to handle aging timeshares whose original government documents were due to expire.

But in mid-January, records show that the ARDA lobbyist working on the bill emailed both La Rosa’s and Hutson’s offices asking them to add two provisions to the bill. One dealt with the rights of legacy timeshare owners; the other addressed the obligations of a timeshare developer who moves a legacy timeshare property into a broader network of resorts.

In both provisions, the lobbyist, Gary Hunter, of Hopping, Green & Sams in Tallahassee, included extra sentences saying the changes were meant as “a clarification of existing law” — an effort to ensure Marriott could use them as a retroactive defense in the Lennen lawsuit.

Hunter also urged the lawmakers to make the changes while the bill was still in its “drafting period” — and exempt from public-record laws. If the bill had been formally filed, the changes would have been considered amendments that would have been discussed and voted on in public meetings.

“I promise you that neither sponsor wants to try to explain this as an amendment, not due to controversy but complexity of the subject,” Hunter wrote. La Rosa and Hutson agreed.

The bill then advanced through the Legislature, with ARDA sending talking points and “issue briefs” to coach La Rosa and Hutson on their presentations. The bill was ultimately heard publicly 10 times between committee hearings and floor votes. Neither La Rosa nor Hutson ever mentioned any lawsuit. Hutson spent a cumulative 2 minutes and 5 seconds presenting his bill across the five Senate hearings.

Financial backing

ARDA sent more than talking points and issue briefs. A few days after Hunter sent in the additions to the bill, the organization gave $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and another $25,000 to a committee controlled by Senate Republican leaders. In April — on the same day that both the House and Senate scheduled the legislation for floor votes — ARDA gave another $10,000 to the state Republican Party. (ARDA, which represents a heavily regulated industry and works on legislation every year, is a reliable source of money for the state GOP, which controls all levers of state government. The organization gives more than $100,000 to the party and its affiliates ever year.)

The legislation passed both chambers in late April, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law a month later. After the legislation passed, ARDA gave another $50,000 to the fund controlled by Republican Senate leaders.

Two weeks to the day after the bill became law, Marriott went back in court in Orlando, alerting Judge Mendoza to the new Florida law whose provisions “go to the very heart” of the case. “These clarifications of existing law … decimate much of the complaint,” Marriott’s attorneys wrote.

The lawyers leading the suit against Marriott protested, accusing the company of trying to change the rules in the middle of the game. Norton, who chairs Newman Ferrara’s class-action and complex litigation group, says Marriott is “resorting to political influence and shady backroom deal-making.”

Tags: Timeshares

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