TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislative leaders appear to have authorized staff members to use private email accounts and had "brainstorming meetings" with Republican Party consultants to attempt to draw favorable political districts, despite a constitutional ban on such coordination.
The allegations arise from a lawsuit challenging the Senate and congressional redistricting that include emails showing how top aides to House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz and several Gaetz consultants were in frequent contact with operatives who drafted and analyzed maps.
Redistricting takes place every decade to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries to ensure equal representation.
The emails show that a month after voters in 2010 approved an amendment banning coordination between the party and lawmakers, GOP consultant and Gaetz adviser Rich Heffley called a redistricting "brainstorming" meeting at the chairman's conference room at party headquarters in Tallahassee.
Heffley listed the expected participants, including Weatherford's redistricting chief of staff, Alex Kelly; Gaetz's redistricting general counsel, Andy Bardos; Gaetz's district aide Chris Clark and a team of consultants running House and Senate 2012 Republican election campaigns: Frank Terraferma, Joel Springer, Andy Palmer, Marc Reichelderfer and Pat Bainter.
Also attending were lawyers advising the House and Senate on their redistricting efforts, George Meros and Ben Ginsberg.
Republican Sens. Andy Gardiner of Orlando and Jack Latvala of Clearwater sent emails using private email accounts to the RPOF consultants.
"What does this do to my district?" Gardiner asked in an email to Bainter after the Fair Districts coalition submitted a substitute map during the Senate's special session on redistricting in April.
Bainter replied, "In fact very good. But I have to tell you, this map is little more than a hatchet job cutting all kinds of stuff up."
Kirk Pepper, a top aide and political adviser to former House Speaker Dean Cannon, sent an email to Reichelderfer in November 2011 with a link to a congressional map, using his personal Dropbox account.
On Jan. 21, 2012, Terraferma messaged Heffley and Reichelderfer, saying "Here is a map …" and an attachment listed as "Frankenstein.jpg."
In April 2012, legislative employee John Guthrie, director of the Senate redistricting staff, sent an email with a map attached, using his personal account, to Tony Cortese of the Senate Republican office, who then sent it to Bainter.
"Didn't know if you had seen this,'' Cortese wrote Bainter.
The Legislature's Senate and congressional maps are being challenged in court by a group of Democrat-leaning plaintiffs and a coalition of voter groups. Their lawyers say the emails are a window into what they allege is an illegal attempt at political coordination.
The lawsuit was filed last year and could take years to resolve.
"This certainly begins to pull back the curtain on the process that had been promised to be nonpartisan and transparent,'' said Gerald Greenberg, a Miami attorney representing the plaintiffs.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Gaetz, R-Destin, refused to comment on the meeting hosted in party headquarters with their staff, or the emails. Weatherford defended the House's approach.
"The House work product resulted in maps that were unanimously upheld by the Florida Supreme Court and by the Department of Justice,'' he said in a statement. "We are proud of those results and believe it was because of our transparency, openness and unwavering compliance with the law."
Republican Party lawyers argued in December that the court should quash the subpoenas, suggesting they were "a fishing expedition seeking information that is not relevant." They argued that there was no proof the House or Senate "utilized, considered or much less relied upon any information submitted" by the party officials and consultants. The lawyers for the consultants also noted that there was no attempt to depose any Democrats and accused them of targeting Republicans exclusively.
The voters' coalition is alleging the two maps violate the constitutional amendments approved by voters that banned lawmakers from drawing districts that favor any political party or individual.
Weatherford and Gaetz steadfastly asserted during the process that they operated with unprecedented openness and devoid of political influence. "For anyone to say that any type of political or incumbent protection was considered in this map is just wrong,'' Weatherford told the House when it adopted its map in January 2012.
Last week, the Legislature's attorneys repeatedly attempted to shield the Legislature and the party consultants from producing documents or being questioned in depositions, arguing it was part of the Legislature's "work product."
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis rejected those arguments and, when the lawyers mentioned the emails, a reporter for the Associated Press requested access to them. The 37 pages admitted into the record are one of only hundreds of documents obtained by the plaintiffs. There is no indication whether the other documents will make their way into the court file.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at eklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.