Oops! Lawmakers destroyed redistricting records

Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel | 12/18/2013

TALLAHASSEE — In new court filings, House and Senate Republican leaders are conceding they deleted records related to the 2012 re-drawing of congressional and legislative maps.

The voting-rights groups — including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and individual voters — challenging Florida's re-drawn congressional maps notified a Leon County court Wednesday that they intended to place House and Senate officials under oath to find out what documents were destroyed and why.

"The admission that redistricting records were destroyed should have Florida voters up in arms," League President Deirdre Macnab said in a statement.

But House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, shot back that the "accusation that the Florida House ... thwarted the law and destroyed documents is completely false."

"The opponents in this lawsuit have received thousands and thousands of documents," Weatherford said. "They should know better.”

The records are a major issue because last week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled state lawmakers can be forced to testify and turn over documents related to whether they intentionally redrew political maps for partisan gain last year.

The Legislature has argued it was protected from such disclosures by a legislative privilege. Forcing lawmakers and their staffs to testify under oath would have a "chilling effect" on future policy-making, they argued.

Last Friday, the high court agreed for the first time that such a protection for lawmakers exists — but it can be outweighed when explicit constitutional mandates such as redistricting are at stake.

The fight stems from 2010 constitutional amendments adopted by voters which banned drawing new congressional or legislative lines with the intent to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.

And if a Leon County judge determines lawmakers did thwart the Fair Districts amendments, lawmakers could have to re-draw Florida's congressional map before the 2014 elections.

The groups challenging last year's maps have been battling over whether they can compel lawmakers and their staff to testify under oath and turn over campaign communications and draft versions of the maps that might shed light on their intentions.

In two separate series of questions dating back to last year, the plaintiffs' lawyers peppered the Legislature's lawyers with questions about the records they wanted, which include e-mails from lawmakers' campaign accounts and text messages, voicemail or other electronic communications to and between political consultants and state and national Republican committees.

The Legislature has argued it did not have to provide such information under its own record-retention rules, but had nonetheless asked lawmakers to search for such correspondence.

In October, House and Senate lawyers denied any records "were deleted, destroyed, lost, misappropriated, or otherwise ... unavailable for production."

But in a revised response to the interrogatories filed Wednesday in Leon County Circuit Court, the Legislature changed its answer and admitted that some records created during the 2012 legislative session were destroyed — per the legislative bodies' standard policy for record retention.

And they blame the plaintiffs for not asking that they be retained prior to the litigation.

"During the legislative process, the published and generally applicable record retention policies embodied in the adopted rules governed the retention of legislative records, including records related to congressional redistricting. In strict compliance with these written record-retention policies, legislative records, including records related to congressional redistricting, were sometimes, and appropriately, discarded," they wrote.

"The Legislative Parties are without knowledge of the facts and circumstances of particular communications. The legislative rules governed the retention of records related to congressional redistricting until a duty to preserve documents arose under Florida law."

Fair Districts lawyers on Wednesday filed a new motion asking the Legislature to produce witnesses at a future date who could testify which records were destroyed and why.

Thousands of emails gathered from both sides have already been turned over, showing Republicans communicated with political consultants during the redistricting process — and possibly made changes to a congressional district in Central Florida at the behest of then-House Speaker Dean Cannon.

Likewise, Democratic consultants preparing for litigation wrote about drawing safe seats for Democrats, particularly U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.

This week, the plaintiffs again filed motions to gather the documents.

Copyright © 2013, Orlando Sentinel

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