By Aaron Deslatte
TALLAHASSEE – A high-stakes trial over the fate of Florida’s congressional redistricting plans was closed to the public Thursday as top Republican operatives testified about their insider roles in trying to influence the final maps.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ordered members of the public and media to leave the courtroom at 1:40 p.m. in order to comply with a Florida Supreme Court decision earlier this week to allow a closed review of emails, maps, documents and other evidence pertaining to GOPoperatives Rich Heffley along with Pat Bainter and his company, Data Targeting.
Bainter has argued in court for the last year that more than 500 pages of records are protected trade secrets, and the state’s high court ordered Lewis on Tuesday to close the court to the public when that evidence was presented. Bainter is still fighting use of the records in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court his lawyer filed on Wednesday.
Several media organizations in attendance, the Orlando Sentinel, the Associated Press, The Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, objected to the order to clear the court.
“So noted,” Judge Lewis said.
“What transpires in a courtroom is public property. The public has a right to know what people testify about and evidence submitted to the court,” said Rachel Fugate, a lawyer for the Sentinel.
“This is an extremely important case and if the testimony or evidence plays a part in the court’s determination, that is something the public should know.”
Heffley was allowed to testify in the open for about two hours Thursday before the questions delved into the Data Targeting records, at which point Lewis ordered the court closed.
The ruling for now keeps more than 500 pages of records from being publicly released, evidence Bainter’s lawyer has argued has nothing to do with the Legislature’s map-drawing and will do unnecessary harm to his business and clients. The Florida Channel, the public television service, was also required to stop broadcasting the trial, which is in its second week.
The case hinges on whether the Republican-controlled Legislature violated the state’s anti-gerrymandering reform by drawing congressional maps in 2012 that intentionally favored the GOP.
The League of Women Voters and other coalition plaintiffs have argued for two years that GOP lawmakers used consultants to engage in a back-door process where partisan maps were drawn and slipped into the public versions later adopted.
House redistricting staff also met twice with GOP consultants, and one of former House SpeakerDean Cannon’s top aides gave draft versions of the maps to another GOP consultant, MarcReichelderfer, in 2011 before they were publicly released.
Testimony has shown so far that other maps drawn by Republican Party of Florida director of House campaigns Frank Terraferma ended up in the hands of Heffley, and were ultimately entered into the public record under the name of a former Florida State University engineering student.
Before the court was closed, the plaintiffs lawyers said the former student, Alex Posada, had given a deposition Thursday morning in which he said he didn’t produce the maps or submit them, and that the Gmail address created under his name was a fake.
Before the court was closed, Heffley testified he “did not draw any maps” but did share some with other Republican consultants, including Bainter, in the hope they would use them to develop their own maps to submit to the Legislature.
But he repeatedly denied setting up any fake email accounts to submit maps under someone else’s name.
Heffley was paid a $15,000-monthly contract he had with RPOF to consult on the Senate maps being drawn. Heffley said although the contract had no specific job requirements, and he produced no reports on what he was accomplishing, “They seemed happy. They signed the checks.”
“I did not submit a map to anybody,” Heffley said. However, “We did encourage people to use these maps to create their own maps to submit them.”
One reason for doing so was to draw “templates” of minority districts such as new Hispanic seats in Central Florida, and pass them around to other consultants so they could “fill in” the surrounding districts.
“I hope other people did” submit maps, Heffley testified. “We were encouraging people to do that.”
In one email to Bainter from Nov. 2011 introduced into evidence, Heffley wrote “might as well submit. The worst they can do is not take it.”
Three political scientists have also testified this week that it was highly unlikely lawmakers could have drawn the congressional maps they did without intentionally trying to help elect Republican congressional members.
The trial is slated to conclude next week.