TALLAHASSEE — In an unprecedented move, House Speaker Will Weatherford took the stand in the trial over Florida's congressional districts Tuesday and defended against accusations that legislators allowed staff to work with political consultants, enabled a shadow process to influence the outcome and destroyed records.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was chairman of the House redistricting effort in 2012 when legislators drew the state's 27 congressional districts according to new rules imposed by the Fair Districts amendments.
The congressional map is being challenged by a coalition of voters groups and seven Democrat-leaning voters who allege that it violates the Fair District amendments of the state Constitution because it was drawn to benefit incumbents and the Republican Party. Plaintiffs claim that political operators collaborated with legislative staff "to conduct a separate redistricting process that was not only apart from the public process — but actually perverted the public process itself."
Weatherford told the court that the new amendments created a "paradigm shift" in the way redistricting was handled in Florida because congressional candidates could no longer hire lobbyists and political consultants could no longer draw maps.
At a January 2011 meeting in the Gray Robinson law firm offices, Weatherford said he, then-House Speaker Dean Cannon and current Senate President Don Gaetz "took that opportunity to bring clarity to the consultants."
"We made it clear we were going to be the ones drawing the maps and not the political consultants,'' Weatherford told the court. "… there were some solemn faces.''
He said that he never had a conversation with one of the outside political operatives "about the substance of the congressional maps" and defended the destruction of House documents and emails that could trace some of the communication with those operatives, despite the likelihood of a lawsuit on the issue.
"I don't know if I deleted any emails during that time period,'' Weatherford said. "… There's no systematic way that I do it but I do regularly clear it out."
Weatherford's testimony was a counterpoint to the story line developed by the plaintiffs' lawyers in the first two days of the 12-day trial, which revealed a cozy relationship between legislative staff and political consultants who exchanged emails and proposed maps weeks before they were available to the public.
Kirk Pepper, deputy chief of staff to Cannon, testified Tuesday that he gave two flash drives containing maps to political consultant and friend Marc Reichelderfer two weeks before they were made public.
Reichelderfer, a consultant to Cannon, testified Monday that he did not know how he obtained the maps, although he did recall receiving some from Pepper.
"In hindsight I wouldn't do that again, but it was intended to help a friend,'' Pepper said. He later elaborated: "I was making him aware of it so that he, as a friend, would know where the political landscape is going — the landscape in which he makes his living."
Weatherford told reporters after the hearing he was "very disappointed that he (Pepper) did that" but defended the House's document retention policy.
"We produced a lot of documents and a lot of records,'' he said after the hearing. "It was an extremely open and transparent process."
Pepper acknowledged that the legislative maps developed by House staff and provided to Reichelderfer were erased from House computers, as were emails between him and Reichelderfer, even though he knew there would be litigation related to redistricting.
The plaintiffs claim that the congressional map violates the state's Fair District provisions in the Florida Constitution because it was intended to give an advantage to incumbents and pack black voters into Democratic districts to benefit Republicans in adjacent districts.
The plaintiffs also allege that Republicans boosted the number of black voters in District 5 to above 50 percent. The seat is held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who was first elected in 1992, and her district has never had a black-voting age population above 50 percent.
Weatherford defended Brown's district, saying the change was needed to "put us in better legal standing,'' and he denied it was intended to pack blacks into the district.
Lawyers for the Legislature argue that the exchange of secret documents between legislative staffers and political consultants doesn't prove intent to break the law.
Weatherford was the first sitting legislator to appear in court for a redistricting challenge and is one of several scheduled to testify.
The Legislature fought to keep Weatherford and other legislators off the witness stand, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled against them.
Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chaired the Senate redistricting committee in 2012, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.
Florida taxpayers have spent nearly $2 million defending the Legislature's redistricting maps.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.