By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Amid a legal fight between voting groups and GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee, new evidence shows that the leaders of a redistricting effort last year allowed their staffs to use private email addresses and personal file sharing accounts to swap information with consultants from the Republican Party of Florida. The communications helped legislative staffers draw up districts friendly to Republican candidates — a violation of a constitutional prohibition of coordination with political parties.
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.
The Herald/Times also reported that two Republican senators, Andy Gardiner of Orlando and Jack Latvala of St. Petersburg, “sent emails using their private email accounts to the RPOF consultants during that time.” Latvala is now spearheading the ethics reform efforts in a Senate Ethics and Elections committee.
A coalition of voting groups, including the Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the National Council of La Raza, filed a lawsuit last year alleging that the district maps were not drawn to be more “fair” and instead offer better chances for Republicans to win House and Senate elections.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the groups expected more Democratic-friendly districts following the Fair Districts ballot measures. The Sentinel reported that the voting groups have claimed that “the maps passed by the Legislature would be likely to elect no more than nine Democrats at most out of the 27 districts, while legislative lawyers say the proposed maps submitted by the plaintiffs would actually do the opposite – creating fewer competitive seats, and more safe ones for Democrats, by reducing the numbers of black voters in minority-held seats.”
Last year, there was a Republican supermajority in both the Florida House and the Florida Senate. This year, there are majorities in both. In the 2012 election, Democrats were able to pick up a few seats.