Friday, November 17, 2017
Politics

Florida redistricting trial gets surprise witness — and a closed courtroom

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TALLAHASSEE — The trial over Florida's redrawn congressional districts took a dramatic turn Thursday as the judge closed the courtroom to the public, and a private citizen — whom legislators commended for having drawn portions of the final congressional map — testified he did not draw any maps and his name was used without his permission.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis closed the courtroom to allow testimony about redistricting documents considered confidential by the firm that created them, Gainesville-based political operative Pat Bainter.

Bainter lost a yearlong legal battle this week when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that 538 pages of emails, maps and planning documents Bainter considered "trade secrets" could be admitted into evidence at the trial. But the court also said that when the documents are admitted, the courtroom would be closed to the public and the media.

The plaintiffs, a coalition of voters led by the League of Women Voters and seven Democratic-leaning individuals, accuse legislators of allowing political operatives to conduct a "shadow" redistricting process to benefit Republican incumbents and candidates in violation of the Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution.

Lawyers for the GOP-controlled Legislature deny those claims and asked the judge Thursday to dismiss the case, claiming the challengers cannot prove that the actions of the political consultants resulted in lawmakers violating the Fair District amendments.

At least some of Bainter's "secret" documents were admitted into evidence Thursday, opening the door for the long-sought testimony of mystery mapmaker Alex Posada.

Posada, a former Florida State University student, allegedly submitted a complete congressional map at 4:42 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2012, as part of a legislative effort to encourage public input.

A state Republican Party official, Frank Terraferma, testified last week that portions of Posada's map were "identical" to a map he had created several months before, and that three of the districts in both maps were used in the final congressional map adopted by lawmakers.

During the trial, neither Terraferma nor any of the House and Senate redistricting staff could explain how the two maps came to look identical.

Plaintiffs' attorney David King told the court that in a last-minute deposition taken Thursday morning, Posada testified he never drew the map, never submitted it, and a Gmail account in his name used to submit the maps never existed.

"It was filed without his authorization under his name," King told the Times/Herald after the hearing. "He gave nobody authorization to file it under his name and the email account (used) to submit it was not his email account."

Posada, a former member of the FSU College Republicans, had appeared at a June 2012 public hearing in Tallahassee to commend the Legislature's open process before the first maps were drawn. He signed a speaker's card with his name and phone number.

When the Senate debated its congressional map on Jan. 17, 2013, Posada's map was praised as an example of the public participation in the open redistricting process.

Posada's surprising testimony came on the eighth day of the redistricting trial as King grilled Republican political consultant Rich Heffley about his role in advising the Legislature on redistricting.

Heffley, who was paid $240,000 in 2012 and 2013 by the Republican Party of Florida to assist Senate Republicans on campaigns and redistricting, acknowledged he often shared maps with political consultants Marc Reichelderfer, Terraferma and Bainter.

"I will tell you that I don't know Mr. Posada,'' Heffley said. "I have never had anything to do with submitting maps and I don't know how they got in the public domain."

King asked: "Were you creating email addresses for people in their names without their authorization or knowledge?"

Heffley responded, "I did not and I had no knowledge that anybody did that." 

It is not clear what role Bainter played in the emergence of the Posada map. Bainter testified Thursday during nearly three hours of closed-door proceedings.

The plaintiffs rested their case after Bainter's testimony. The Legislature will begin its defense today and the case is scheduled to end June 4.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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