Emails raise questions about Fla. redistricting

Gary Fineout | Miami Herald | 02/04/2013

New documents are raising questions about whether Florida legislators ignored rules intended to prevent political parties and incumbents from influencing the once-a-decade process of redistricting.

Emails show that top Republican Party of Florida officials met in late 2010 to "brainstorm" redistricting with political consultants and legislative employees involved in drawing new districts for Congress and the Legislature.

That was just a few weeks after voters overwhelmingly adopted the "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments that set new standards for redistricting and were intended to remove partisanship from the politically charged job of creating new maps.

The Associated Press requested the documents after they were presented in a court hearing last week. Several groups have filed lawsuits seeking to have a court throw out the maps eventually adopted for both Congress and the Florida Senate.

That court battle has sparked a tug-of-war over who should be required to testify - and what documents should be presented in court. A bid to force legislators and legislative staff to turn over information is currently before an appeals court.

But what has emerged is a batch of documents that consist mainly of emails among Florida political consultants - including some who were getting paid by the Republican Party. The emails show how the consultants routinely traded redistricting information, and how it would potentially affect Republican incumbents.

But some emails show legislative employees exchanging information with these same consultants. In one example, a top aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon used a personal email account to send a consultant a link to a congressional district map. The aide, Kirk Pepper, did not respond to a phone call or email requesting comment.

Another email shows a Republican Party official telling one political consultant that the latest proposed redistricting map for Congress "could entice" U.S. Rep. John Mica to run against U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams. Mica did run against Adams, defeating her in the GOP primary.

"This really begins to pull back the curtain on what was touted as an open and nonpartisan process," said Gerald Greenberg, a lawyer for the League of Women Voters, La Raza and Common Cause, all of which are challenging the maps adopted by state legislators.

Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new population figures. But two years ago voters approved the "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments, which state that legislators can't draw districts intended to protect incumbents or members of a certain political party, a practice known as "gerrymandering."

In the wake of the amendments, the top Republican legislators in charge of redistricting contended the process would be open and transparent. That assessment was echoed again last week by House Speaker Will Weatherford, who said the final maps were approved without regard to personal or party interests.

The adopted maps did lead to the election of more Democrats to both Congress and the Legislature. But critics contend the final districts still do not reflect the fact that Florida is politically divided. Republicans hold a 26-14 advantage in the Florida Senate, a 76-44 edge in the state House and a 17-10 advantage in the state's congressional delegation even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state and President Barack Obama carried it.

The emails show that in December 2010 Republicans set up a meeting to "brainstorm" with nationally-known attorney Ben Ginsberg along with several party employees, party political consultants, two lawyers advising the House and Senate on redistricting, the staff director of the House committee redrawing lines and an aide to the chairman of the Senate committee overseeing the process.

A Republican party spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about that meeting.

Senate President Don Gaetz was the chairman of the redistricting committee. A spokeswoman for Gaetz said she could not comment on the documents or emails because of ongoing lawsuits over the redistricting maps.

Weatherford said in a statement that the maps drawn up initially by the House had been upheld by the state Supreme Court and by the U.S. Justice Department.

"We are proud of those results and believe it was because of our transparency, openness and unwavering compliance with the law," Weatherford said.

The lawyers representing the groups challenging the redistricting maps have been trying to get access to additional information from the consultants. But one of the consulting firms, Gainesville-based Data Targeting, has fought against the effort. Lawyers for Data Targeting have told Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that the consultants are not part of the lawsuit and should be not required to spend thousands of dollars wading through emails and documents.

In a filing back in December, Data Targeting's lawyers called the subpoenas a "fishing expedition based on a mere political hunch."

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