By Aaron Deslatte,Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE — Long before the first public maps were released, critics say Florida Republican political operatives were creating an “illusion” of non-partisanship over the once-a-decade redistricting process with a “wink and a nudge toward their collaborators in the Legislature.”
That illusion was outed Tuesday when the Florida Supreme Court released thousands of pages of emails, testimony and sealed court records related to the GOP political consulting firm Data Targeting, which was at the center of the two-year legal fight over lawmakers’ attempts to implement anti-gerrymandering reforms passed by voters.
The Gainesville-based company’s president, Pat Bainter, has been fighting to block the release of over 500 pages of emails, maps and other records from 2011 and 2012. The records provide some insight into the lengths to which the political operatives went to influence the 2012 redistricting process in which the Legislature had been tasked for the first time with drawing new legislative and congressional maps without partisan intent.
Last June, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled the GOP had violated the 2010 Fair Districts reforms when it drew new congressional districts, and blasted Republican political operatives for waging a “secret, organized campaign to subvert the supposedly open and transparent redistricting process.”
“They managed to taint the redistricting process,” Lewis penned, “and the resulting map with improper partisan intent,” by writing scripts for people to use when testifying, and submitting public maps through third-parties.
But Lewis had relied in part on the Data Targeting records which had remained sealed until this weekend, when the emails were disclosed by the Scripps-Tribune Capitol Bureau. The records had been slated for release on Dec. 1 after the state Supreme Court rejected Bainter’s arguments that they were trade secrets and protected by the First Amendment.
Given the leak, the high court released the records Tuesday.
They show the right-hand men of Florida’s Republican legislative leadership at the helm of a coordinated operation to recruit and instruct people to submit “public” maps prepared by party operatives in order to maintain GOP super-majorities in the Legislature.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups have brought legal challenges to the congressional and state Senate maps. Last August, the Legislature relented and re-drew seven congressional districts throughout Central Florida. The League is appealing the trial court’s decision to sanction that new map.
“The documents that these political operatives worked so hard to hide from the public, along with their testimony given in closed proceedings, reveal in great detail how they manipulated the public process to achieve their partisan objectives,” plaintiff lawyerDavid King said Tuesday.
Bainter was at the center of the effort.
During a deposition, Bainter professed to only having a passing “interest” in the redistricting process, and had never submitted maps, claiming “it was an intriguing process” to watch.
“I never actually completed a map. I found it way too tedious,” Bainter said under oath.
But behind the scenes, email show he arranged for intermediaries to submit five maps drawn by GOP operatives. Bainter suggested he could round up “10 more people at least” to do the same.
Through fellow Gainesville Republican Stafford Jones and consultant Rich Heffley — who has worked for current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando — Bainter’s shop provided a pipeline from the Republican Party of Florida, which was preparing draft congressional and legislative plans, to the Legislature’s portal for public map submissions, records show.
After RPOF operative Frank Terraferma submitted a proposed congressional plan to Bainter in October 2011, Bainter wrote to his staff that “We will NOT exactly copy this map, but it does give you something to go on. In particular take note of the new Hispanic Central Florida District,” a version of which would later be won by Democrat Alan Grayson.
In another message that month to Bainter, consultant Anthony Pedicini wrote he had an alternative map called “Impartial” that constructed a Central Florida Hispanic congressional seat which would draw three Tampa Bay Republicans into the same district.
“If that happens, I am going to talk to Dean and Cretul,” Pedicini wrote, referring to then House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and former Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, who went to work lobbying with Cannon.
Bainter replied the same day, “I need a map. Time critical. I am being pinged as we speak.”
Over the next two months, his associates prepared draft maps, enlisted people in specific legislative districts to submit them with instructions on what to say, briefed GOP lawmakers and their political consultants on maps, and repeatedly warned all the participants to avoid creating an email chain.
“Want to echo Pat’s reminder about being incredibly careful and deliberative here, especially when working with people who are organizing other folks,” one Data Targeting employee, Matt Mitchell, wrote on Nov. 29, 2011, ahead of legislative meetings on the maps.
“Must be very smart in how we prep every single person we talk to about all of these,” he went on. “If you can think of a more secure and failsafe way to engage our people, please do it. Cannot be too redundant on that front. Pat and I will probably sound almost paranoid on this over the next week, but it will be so much more worthwhile to be cautious.”
Another consultant then replied, “Just to ease your minds, I have tried to do most of the asking over the phone, so their is no e-mail trail if it gets forwarded.
“When I e-mail guidelines to people, the only thing I am putting in writing is that it is important that we show support for the redistricting process, and the way it was handled by the Senate, and ask that they ask any like minded friends who they think would like to voice their opinion to contact the committee as well,” consultant Jessica Corbett went on. “I only send templates to those who I have spoken/e-mailed with and they know the mission and have agreed to help. I have stressed discretion to all.”
In another e-mail exchange, a Data Targeting staffer discusses with former GOP Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who had been hired as an adviser by then Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a process of “recruitment” to get people with talking points to testify in favor of the Senate map.
The Senate map passed about three months later was quickly thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court for violating the anti-gerrymandering standards.
The 12-day trial over the congressional maps included top GOP political operatives testifying about how they wanted a “seat at the table” and circulated preferred versions of the maps, with names like “Frankenstein,” “Sputnik,” and “Perfect Pieces.”
A former aide to Cannon leaked maps to one GOP consultant.
Justice Barbara Pariente put it the most bluntly, in an opinion begrudgingly concurring to granting Bainter 10 more days to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in — which it quickly declined to do.
“The public’s right to view these materials that the trial court relied on in rendering its final judgment has been delayed long enough,” Pariente wrote.