TALLAHASSEE — Florida's two-week redistricting trial began with a bang Monday as GOP political consultant and lobbyist Marc Reichelderfer admitted he had access to more than two dozen secret maps drawn by the Legislature's staff weeks before they were available to the public. He also said he recommended modifications to pending maps.
Reichelderfer, a long time consultant to former House Speaker Dean Cannon, repeatedly denied having any role in influencing the outcome of the maps produced by the Republican-controlled Legislature, which is prohibited from drawing political boundaries to benefit political parties and incumbents.
"I did not tell them how to draw the maps. I didn't tell them where to draw the lines on the map and I didn't tell them which maps to pick," Reichelderfer said during his six-hour testimony.
He was the first witness in the high stakes redistricting trial before Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis as plaintiffs attempt to invalidate the 2012 congressional districts approved by lawmakers in a bipartisan vote.
A coalition of voter groups, led by the League of Women Voters and joined by seven Democrat-leaning individuals, claim that the congressional map violates the state's Fair District amendments because it unfairly advantages incumbents, packs black voters into Democratic seats to benefit Republicans in adjacent districts and was designed by Reichelderfer and other political consultants to "undermine the public redistricting process."
"Legislators and staffers collaborated … to conduct a separate redistricting process that was not only apart from the public process — but actually perverted the public process itself," the coalition claims in court documents.
Attorneys for the state Legislature reject the claims and argue that the 2012 election cycle in which incumbent Republicans — U.S. Reps. Allen West of West Palm Beach, Sandy Adams of Orlando, Cliff Stearns of Ocala, and David Rivera of Miami — lost their election bids is evidence that the maps were not biased in their favor.
Reichelderfer, who has also been a consultant to Republican Sens. John Thrasher and John Legg, said he met twice with GOP consultants Rich Heffley and Pat Bainter and House and Senate legislative staff to find a way to get "a seat at the table: when lawmakers redrew legislative and congressional maps.'' But, he said, lawyers later concluded they should have no role.
He came to the meeting with a list of questions to consider as legislators drew a Central Florida Hispanic seat that could influence the neighboring district of incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. He also suggested that the district held by Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, should increase the number of African-American voters above 50 percent.
He also wanted them to cover the topic: "Communication with outside non lawyers — how to make that work?"
Reichelderfer said his sneak peek into the draft congressional maps was provided to him by Cannon's aide, Kirk Pepper, who now works for Cannon's Tallahassee-based lobbying firm. He testified that Pepper gave him the maps as a professional favor, not to help lawmakers get a political advantage.
"It was helpful to me professionally to have a heads up on maps that were going to be released to the public,'' he told the court. When pressed by the plaintiffs' attorneys, Reichelderfer couldn't recall many of the details of phone conversations and emails with other consultants and stuck to those talking points.
Reichelderfer, whose legal bills are being paid by the Republican Party of Florida, said he and other political consultants liked to tinker with maps for political sport, but he denied claims that he offered advice intended to influence the final product produced by lawmakers.
"We are political junkies and drawing maps was kind of like doing a Rubik's Cube, especially congressional maps because the larger the maps, the harder it is to draw," he said.
The plaintiffs say they will show that Pat Bainter, head of the Gainesville-based political consulting firm Data Targeting, was instrumental in providing the data detail that helped legislators draw maps to Republican advantage. Bainter, who was paid more than $6.2 million over three years by the Republican Party to provide data analysis and political consulting for legislative races, has demanded that the courtroom be closed when his emails and planning documents are entered in trial.
He argues that the documents should be deemed trade secrets. Lewis rejected Bainter's request to close the courtroom when any of the 538 pages of the confidential documents are discussed. Bainter has appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal asking the court to stay Lewis' order. The Republican Party is paying Bainter's legal bills.
The DCA agreed with Bainter and ruled on Monday that the plaintiffs may not discuss Bainter's documents during the trial until the court reviews Bainter's claim. A decision is expected on Wednesday.
When pressed by the coalition's attorney, David King, Reichelderfer acknowledged he was given numerous congressional maps drawn by the House redistricting staff before they became public, but he couldn't recall how he got them.
"The fact that they're on my computer doesn't tell me how they got there," he said.
"They somehow miraculously appeared on your computer?"' King asked. "You knew you weren't supposed to have those maps."
He continued to press Reichelderfer on the origins of the maps. Although Reichelderfer initially testified he didn't know who drew the maps, he said Monday that he realized they were the work of the redistricting staff after the Legislature's attorneys hired an expert to examine his computer and the expert confirmed where the maps came from.
The trial continues on Tuesday, with testimony expected from Pepper, Cannon's former aide who supplied Reichelderfer with the maps before they were public, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, who was in charge of the House's redistricting effort in 2012.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.