TALLAHASSEE — For the first time in Florida history, a sitting House speaker took the witness stand Tuesday to give testimony about state business.
In most cases, so-called “legislative privilege” shields lawmakers from having to go under oath in cases that involve state business. The Florida Supreme Court, though, ruled that legal philosophy doesn’t apply to a redistricting trial that could lead to the state’s congressional districts being redrawn.
The plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, contend the state’s congressional maps are unconstitutional because politics played a role in shaping the districts, contrary to a 2010 “Fair Districts” amendment that was to remove politics from redistricting.
If Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis agrees with the plaintiffs, Florida lawmakers would have to redraw the state’s congressional district boundaries.
During his nearly four hours of testimony in a Tallahassee courtroom, House Speaker Will Weatherford, who headed the House’s 2012 redistricting efforts, said politics played no role in the Legislature’s final maps.
“We went to great lengths to depoliticize the process,” testified Weatherford, who said members acted as a “shield” to keep professional staff away from political consultants eager to influence the process.
In at least one case, though, a top House aide was actively funneling nonpublic maps to GOP consultant Marc Reichelderfer.
“I intended to help a friend who was cut out of a process that determines how he makes his living,” said Kirk Pepper, a top aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
Weatherford said Pepper, who testified before Weatherford, showed “poor judgment.”
“Had the speaker known he had done it, had I known he had done it, there would have been serious consequences,” Weatherford said.
Attorneys for the coalition of plaintiffs zeroed in on a meeting that Weatherford had with Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who at the time led the Senate’s redistricting process and staff.
Weatherford said they handled the maps as if they were any other piece of legislation when there are differences between the House and Senate. Those are often worked out by staff members, presiding officers or committee chairmen.
“The conversation to determine the differences between the two (maps) was a meeting between the Senate president and I and staff,” he said. “That is in line with our rules and our open records laws.”
The lack of trust and palpable dislike between the House and Senate going into the 2012 session also was on full display during Pepper’s testimony.
“There was essentially zero conversation between the Senate president’s office and the speaker’s office,” Pepper testified during the Tuesday hearing.
That dislike stemmed from a 2011 session that didn’t end until nearly 4 a.m. During that session, Cannon and then-Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, openly criticized each other and both chambers voted down the other’s top priorities.
The tension carried over into the 2012 session, which was the year lawmakers had to draw new political districts as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process.
To make sure both sides of the Legislature had some communication, legislative leaders each selected a lobbyist they were close with to act as an intermediary. For the Senate it was Rich Heffley; and on the House side it was Reichelderfer, who gave nearly six hours of testimony on the first day of the trial, which started Monday.
Pepper said he gave maps that weren’t public to Reichelderfer, but never received input from him or any other political consultant. This mirrored testimony given by Reichelderfer, and is a key point. The plaintiffs must prove it was the explicit intent of the Legislature to help Republicans, not just that they had maps early or were involved in the process.