POLITICS

Emails show legislative staff talked with party over redistricting maps

 

Despite new rules that prohibited legislators from coordinating with political parties in the once-a-decade redistricting process, emails show House and Senate staff were in communication with Republican party staff and consultants on the issues

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Florida’s legislative leaders appear to have authorized their staff to use private email accounts, personal “dropboxes” and to engage in “brainstorming meetings” with Republican Party of Florida consultants in attempting to draw favorable political districts, despite a constitutional ban on such coordination.

The allegations arise from a lawsuit challenging the Senate and congressional redistricting that include emails showing how top deputies of Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford and several of Gaetz’s consultants were in frequent contact with consultants who drafted and analyzed maps. Redistricting is done every 10 years to redraw boundaries of legislative and congressional districts to ensure equal representation.

The emails show that just a month after voters approved the amendment banning all coordination between the party and lawmakers in 2010, Rich Heffley, the RPOF political consultant who served as a close advisor to Gaetz, called a redistricting “brainstorming” meeting to be held in the chairman’s conference room at RPOF headquarters in Tallahassee.

Heffley listed the expected participants, which included Weatherford’s redistricting chief of staff, Alex Kelly; Gaetz’s redistricting general counsel Andy Bardos; Gaetz’s district aide Chris Clark, and the political consultants running the House and Senate 2012 Republican election campaigns: Frank Terraferma, Joel Springer, Andy Palmer, Marc Reichelderfer, and Pat Bainter. Also attending: the lawyers advising the House and Senate on their redistricting efforts, George Meros and Ben Ginsberg.

Two Republican senators, Andy Gardiner, of Orlando, and Jack Latvala, of St. Petersburg, sent emails using their private email accounts to the RPOF consultants.

"What does this do to my district?" asked Gardiner in an email to Bainter after the Fair Districts coalition submitted a substitute map during the Senate’s special session on redistricting in April.

Bainter replied, “... In fact very good. But I have to tell you, this map is little more than a hatchet job cutting all kinds of stuff up.”

Kirk Pepper, a top aide and political advisor on the state staff of former House Speaker Dean Cannon, sent an email to Reichelderfer in November 2011 with a link to a congressional map, using his personal Dropbox account.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, Terraferma sent a message to Heffley and Reichelderfer saying “Here is a map…” and the attachment was listed as “Frankenstein.jpg.”

And in April, John Guthrie, the director of the Senate redistricting staff, sent an email with a map attached, using his personal account, to Tony Cortese of the Senate Republican office who then sent it to Bainter.

“Didn’t know if you had seen this,’’ Cortese wrote Bainter.

The Legislature’s Senate and congressional maps are being challenged in Leon County Circuit Court by a group of Democrat-leaning plaintiffs and a coalition of voters groups. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the emails are a window into what they allege is an illegal attempt at political coordination. The lawsuit was filed last year and could take months or years to resolve in court.

“This certainly begins to pull back the curtain on the process that had been promised to be non-partisan and transparent,’’ said Gerald Greenberg, a Miami attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Gaetz, R-Destin, refused to comment on the meeting hosted in party headquarters with their staff, or the emails. Weatherford defended the House’s approach.

"The House work product resulted in maps that were unanimously upheld by the Florida Supreme Court and by the Department of Justice,’’ he said in a statement. “We are proud of those results and believe it was because of our transparency, openness and unwavering compliance with the law."

Attorneys for the RPOF consultants argued in December that the court should quash the subpoenas, suggesting they were “a fishing expedition seeking information that is not relevant.” They argued that there was no proof the House or Senate “utilized, considered or much less relied upon any information submitted” by the party officials and consultants. The lawyers for the consultants also noted that there was no attempt to depose any Democrats and accused them of targeting Republicans exclusively.

The voters’ coalition is alleging the two maps violate the constitutional amendments approved by voters that banned lawmakers from drawing districts that favor any political party or individual.

Weatherford and Gaetz steadfastly asserted during the process that they were operating with unprecedented openness and devoid of political influence.

“For anyone to say that any type of political or incumbent protection was considered in this map is just wrong,’’ Weatherford told the House when it adopted its map in January 2012.

Last week, the Legislature’s attorneys repeatedly attempted to shield the Legislature and the RPOF consultants from producing documents or being questioned in depositions, arguing it was part of the Legislature’s “work product.”

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis rejected those arguments and, when the lawyers mentioned the emails, a reporter for the Associated Press requested access to them.

The 37-pages admitted into the record are one of only hundreds of documents obtained by the plaintiffs. There is no indication whether the other documents will make their way into the court file.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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