(FOX 13) - State agents busted Heather Kokesch Del Castillo in an undercover sting, triggering a lawsuit that could shake up Florida’s health and nutrition industry.
Heather’s story started in California, where she took an interest in fresh food and exercise.
She combined her degree in education with a one-year private certification program in New York for holistic health coaching.
“We studied a hundred different dietary theories,” she said. "This is working really well for me. I would like to share this with other people”
Business as a holistic health coach took off. Then the military transferred her husband from California to Ft. Walton Beach Florida.
They moved and Heather kept her business going, picking up new clients like Nina Selph, who credits her weight loss and lessened allergies to Heather’s program.
“I couldn’t walk more than a couple of feet without being out of breath,” said Nina. “I used to take tons and tons of steroids. No more… To me, she helped to give me a better life.”
Nina was inspired to take over a restaurant business that offers vegetables and garden fresh smoothies. She now has a dozen employees.
Meanwhile, Heather’s business collapsed.
She received an email from an agent posing as a prospective client named Pat Smith. Heather offered to help Mr. Smith.
Then he showed up at her door with this cease and desist letter.
He told her, under state law, a health coach cannot recommend any particular food without the proper state licensing.
Heather was hit with $754 in fines and threatened with jail if she continued working with clients.
“I was shocked. My heart sunk. It was surreal,” Heather said. "It would be a thousand dollar fine per offense and up to a year in jail, per offense.”
Heather’s attorney, Ari Bargil said the state's actions are a violation of free speech and a waste of money.
"Your tax dollars at work…The state recognizes that what heather does is safe because she’d be allowed to do it for free,” Bargil noted. "And it doesn’t matter that she is doing it in exchange for compensation. She is talking about a topic that is part of the public discourse. People have been talking about diet and nutrition for as long as people have been eating.”
Heather could promote healthy living without compensation, or get paid to do in on TV or in books.
However, to get paid to do it in-person, she would need a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or related field, plus 900 hours of supervised practice, an exam, to pay fees, and obtain a license.
The military could transfer Heather and her husband around the world in the years it would take to jump through the hoops.
We don’t know if Governor Rick Scott - who prides himself on deregulating and fueling jobs - knows what’s happening within the state’s bureaucracy. We reached out to his press office, but we were unable to get through to him directly.
Our request for an interview was not accepted.
A spokeswoman for the governor sent us a brief email stating, “DOH cannot pick and choose which laws to follow.”
Florida’s Secretary of Health also did not accept our interview request.
A DOH spokeswoman sent us a reply which stated, “We (the Florida Department of Health) will work with the legislature on any changes they would like to make in regards to regulating dieticians and nutritionists.”
Meanwhile, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran did accept our request and he said the legislature should take down the regulations that took down Heather’s business.
“It’s absolute pure insanity. It’s indefensible,” said Corcoran. “It has to be fixed and I apologize to that young woman and her husband who serves his country."
The Florida Institute for Justice took Heather’s case and filed a First Amendment suit against the state.