The Republican consultants had to be hush-hush — "almost paranoid" in the words of one — because of their high-stakes mission: Get go-betweens to help circumvent a Florida Constitutional ban on gerrymandering.
The plot was spelled out in a newly released batch of once-secret emails that show how the consultants surreptitiously drew congressional and state legislative maps. They then recruited seemingly independent citizens to submit them in an effort to strengthen the hand of Florida Republicans when the GOP-led Legislature redrew lawmaker districts in 2011.
The year before, Florida voters overwhelmingly amended the state's constitution to prohibit legislators from drawing legislative and congressional districts that favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. Citing the new amendments, a coalition of voting-rights and liberal groups called the Fair Districts Coalition sued the Legislature over its maps.
The emails, under court seal until this weekend, played a key role in a recent court victory to force the Legislature to redraw some of Florida's congressional districts. The correspondence will take center stage in a related case challenging the state Senate maps.
The emails also provide a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of how political players used secrecy and deception as they recruited third parties to submit maps, some of which were drawn by Gainesville-based Data Targeting firm, led by political player Pat Bainter.
"Want to echo Pat's reminder about being incredibly careful and deliberative here, especially when working with people who are organizing other folks," Data Targeting's Matt Mitchell wrote in a Nov. 29, 2011 email. "Must be very smart in how we prep every single person we talk to about all of these. 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," Mitchell concluded.
About 14 minutes later, consultant Jessica Corbett of Electioneering Consulting, responded that she understood the plan.
"Just to ease your minds, I have tried to do most of the asking over the phone, so their [sic] is no e-mail trail if it gets forwarded," Corbett wrote, noting that she limits what "I am putting in writing" in emails.
"I only send templates to those who I have spoken/e-mailed with and they know the mission and have agreed to help," she wrote. "I have stressed discretion to all."
In response, another Data Targeting consultant named Robert Krames said: "Good. Thank you."
The emails also detail how the consultants proposed districts that benefitted some Republicans or, in one proposal, "retires Bill Young," the now-deceased congressman from Pinellas County.
The consultants established a database of lawmakers' home addresses and overlayed them on some maps. In another case, they considered ways to pack black voters in a Miami-Dade district by creating a district with "some long tentacles to reach out and grab enough black population."
Bainter, owner of Data Targeting, had fought the release of the emails for months. He took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservative Justice Clarence Thomas declined to take the case Friday.
The emails were supposed to be released Dec. 1, but Bainter's allies released the documents over the weekend, first to the Naples Daily News.
Bainter had claimed his First Amendment rights would be infringed by the release of the documents. But the Florida Supreme Court said he waited too long to make the argument. Bainter stood by his claim Sunday.
"The Florida Supreme Court ruling unsealing my personal documents further undermines the constitutional rights of any citizen who dares participate in democracy," Bainter said in a written statement.
Bainter said the case and the pursuit of the emails "had less to do with the law and more of an inquisition hell bent on winning through legal threat, that which they fail miserably at in the arena of public opinion. They demanded my personal and private political musings, opinions and activities, that which is most dearly protected by the Constitution."
The Fair District Coalition declined to comment on the documents Sunday, saying a court-issued order that prohibited the release or discussion of the emails had not been lifted.
In a brief filed Friday with the Florida Supreme Court, the coalition said the documents showed "the lengths the operatives went to secretly send to collaborators in the Legislature the maps they developed to maximize Republican seats."
The coalition — composed of several voters rights groups and individuals — is appealing Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis's ruling that the 2012 congressional maps violated the state Constitution. The groups say Lewis did not go far enough by requiring only two districts to be redrawn and allowing the Legislature to come up with a new plan.
When Lewis made his ruling on July 10, he gave legislators until Aug. 15 to modify the map and fix two districts in particular. Lawmakers responded by calling a rare summer-time special session and modified seven of the state's 27 congressional districts, then appealed to the court to approve it.
Lewis upheld the revisions and allowed Florida's flawed congressional districts to remain in place for two more years.
Fair Districts wants the state Supreme Court to invalidate the entire apportionment plan and impose a "meaningful remedy," according to the brief filed Friday.
Not all of the plans and maps the consultants discussed became law. The emails, 538 pages worth, don't explicitly show just what was ultimately approved by legislators.
And, despite the machinations of the consultants, there's no clear evidence showing the consultants directly influencing lawmakers to circumvent the anti-gerrymandering law. Lawmakers say that, in the end, they made their decisions based on all the public evidence and data they had in front of them.
So even if the consultants used go-betweens, if lawmakers didn't know about it, then there's relatively little evidence to show that they had the intention of drawing districts to favor or disfavor incumbents.
Though a somewhat arcane topic, the issue of redistricting has some of the most far-reaching political ramifications. Redistricting, which takes place every 10 years after the U.S. census, is designed to make sure that congressional and state legislative seats have an equal number of residents so people are fairly represented.
But in drawing the districts, the party in power often tries to maximize the strength of its voters and minimize that of its opponents. In the case of the Florida Legislature, that means packing as many Democrats as possible into relatively fewer districts. It makes Democratic districts overwhelmingly Democratic but it also ensures that there are far more districts that lean Republican by just enough of a comfortable margin.
After the GOP won the Legislature in the 1990s, it established districts that clearly benefitted Republicans and diluted overall Democratic power. That's why liberal-leaning groups in 2010 put the so-called "Fair Districts" amendments on the ballot.
One potential problem for Democrats remained: minority voters, who get more guarantees under federal law of electing minority representatives. Since minorities, specifically African-Americans, tend to vote more Democratic, the creation of heavily black districts allows the spread of more white Republican-leaning districts.
The process has been nicknamed "bleaching" and the email chain suggests that Data Targeting's Michael Sheehan considered ways to get more whites out of an iteration of Miami state Sen. Dwight Bullard's district to make it more Democratic.
That district and another, Sheehan wrote, "do not have enough available non-minority population that we could reduce to effectively increase the minority population percentage. However we can create some long tentacles to reach out and grab enough black population to hit 50+%"
The documents show the lengths to which the consultants went to strengthen districts controlled by Republicans, from Pinellas County's state Sen. Jack Latvala to Miami-Dade's state Sen. Anitere Flores.
In one case, a consultant with West Palm Beach-based Public Concepts named Rich Johnston fretted that we "missed Flores house" in one district. Sheehan then wrote back: "I will adjust to include Flores.'
Flores told the Herald/Times that she had no knowledge of the discussions.
The GOP consultants made sure that they specifically pinpointed all of the homes of lawmakers and potential candidates in the proposed districts. In one email, Bainter made sure that the home of his client, U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, was included on a map.
In another email chain, Bainter said of then-state Sen. John Thrasher "He actually lives in Clay County." That admission conflicts with Thrasher's statements that he lived in his St. Johns County-based district.
In one exchange, Johnston asked Bainter and Sheehan for a spreadsheet containing the home addresses for candidates and incumbents.
"Still have a problem in Manatee," Johnston wrote in an Oct. 19, 2011 email that mentioned Republican state Sen. Bill Galvano. "Galvano is west of Bradenton over by the water. Can we wrap the rest of Manatee County into SD 21 and retreat some out of Sarasota?"
On Nov. 10, 2011, Johnston asked Bainter to include "5007 Eagle Point Drive, Jacksonville" address in District 5. Property records show that address belongs to Jacksonville Republican Rep. Michael Hogan.
On Nov. 28, 2011, Johnston took an interest in the man who just became the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Steve Crisafulli: "Is there a way to put Crisafulli back in play?"
Other consultants who participated in or were referenced in the emails: Randy Nielsen of Public Concepts, Anthony Pedicini of Image Management, Republican Party of Florida map-drawing whiz Frank Terraferma and top lobbyists Rich Heffley and Marc Reichelderfer.
Some of them took the stand during the redistricting trial earlier this year. Terraferma testified that a maps he drew at Heffley's behest was identical to one submitted under the name of a former FSU student named Alex Posada. Posada said someone else submitted the map under his name.
Who did is a mystery, although it was clear that Bainter's crew had a stable of potential map-submitters, some of whom were allegedly organized by his hometown associate, Stafford Jones, the chairman Alachua County GOP.
"I can direct Stafford to have his people send these maps via email," Mitchell wrote in one email to Bainter, who a week before said by email "Stafford getting me 10 more people at least, [sic]."
Because Bainter temporarily succeeded in having the emails shielded from public view, parts of his testimony were given in secret.
Earlier, in 2012, Bainter sat for a deposition where he downplayed his involvement in map-making and made little mention of using go-betweens. Bainter was elusive and displayed a poor memory when he was questioned by Fair Districts lawyer Michael B. DeSanctis.
"Why were you drawing maps?" DeSanctis asked him at one point.
"Intrigue," said Bainter.
DeSanctis: "Intrigue about what?"
Bainter: "What do you mean by 'what?'"
DeSanctis: "What do you mean, 'intrigue?'"
Bainter: "It was a pretty intriguing process."
DeSanctis: "What? Well, one might be intrigued by the redistricting process and still not take it upon himself or herself to actually draw maps. So I'm wondering…what was going through your mind?
Bainter: "It was a very fascinating item. And I found it very interesting. I never actually completed a map. I found it way too tedious."