By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A week into the 12-day redistricting trial, groups challenging the Florida Legislature’s congressional maps are asking the Florida Supreme Court to overrule a lower court and require that political operatives turn over emails, maps and memos related to the state’s redistricting effort in 2012.
According to The Tampa Bay Times/ Miami Herald, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee sided “with Republican political consultants and ordered that 538 pages of their documents may be considered confidential ‘trade secrets’ and should not be entered as evidence in the pending trial over the state’s congressional districts.”
The ruling came on the fourth day of the 12-day trial pending in Circuit Court in Leon County and reverses a ruling by Judge Terry Lewis who had ordered that the documents of GOP consulting company, Data Targeting, and its owner Pat Bainter could be made public if entered as evidence in the trial.
The League of Women voters and seven Florida voters are suing the state for violating the state law that prohibits legislators from protecting political parties and incumbents when redistricting the state.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs had planned to use the documents to argue that Bainter and his staff partners, Matt Mitchell and Michael Sheehan, “surreptitiously participated in the process of preparing the 2012 Congressional Plan,” which they contend unfairly benefits incumbents.
“The orders of the lower tribunal entered May 2, 2014, and May 15, 2014, are REVERSED to the extent the orders permit any degree of disclosure or use at trial of the constitutionally-protected contents of the privileged and confidential documents that are the subject of those orders,” a three-judge panel in its one-page ruling.
Since then, the Florida League of Women Voters and a coalition of voters “filed an emergency petition in the Florida Supreme Court Friday, asking the court to allow documents from political operatives who advised legislators to become part of the ongoing redistricting trial,” the Times/Herald reports.
The League and others are alleging that state lawmakers broke the law created by the Fair Districts Amendments, which says legislators cannot draw districts that favor incumbents or one political party over another.
So far, the trial has shed light on some of the background happenings while those maps were being drawn. Specifically, the trial disclosed that political operatives did play a role in the process.
In the second day of the redistricting trial on Florida’s congressional maps, Kirk Pepper, the former deputy chief of staff to former House Speaker Dean Cannon, provided a window into the friendly and revolving world between political consultants and legislative staff.
Under oath in the second day of the trial in Leon County Circuit Court, Pepper acknowledged for the first time that he not only supplied maps to political consultant and friend Marc Reichelderfer before they were available to public, he supplied them on two flash drives.
Reichelderfer, a consultant to Cannon, testified Monday that he did not know how he obtained the maps although he did recall receiving some from Pepper. Pepper has since gone to work for Capitol Insight, the lobbying firm founded by Cannon.
Why was it acceptable for a House insider provide the work product of the House legislative staff to a political operative before the public had access?
“In hindsight I wouldn’t do that again but it was intended to help a friend who was cut out of the process [from which] he makes his living,” Pepper testified. He later elaborated: “I was making him aware of it so that he, as a friend, would know where the political landscape is going the landscape in which he makes his living in. I was trying to do something nice for a friend of mine.”
The hearing also unearthed some details about secret meetings between Florida House and Senate leaders, among other things. The trial will continue into next week.