The organization that led the fight to successfully challenge Florida's legislatively-drawn political districts, the League of Women Voters, is urging trustees of the University of West Florida to reject the appointment of former Senate President Don Gaetz as its next president because of his role in his chamber's circumvention of the Fair Districts amendment.
"We are writing to question how former Senator Don Gaetz, who led a conspiracy to violate The Florida Constitution can even be considered for leadership in any of Florida's esteemed organizations?,'' wrote LWF president Pamela Goodman Wednesday in a letter to the UWF Board of Trustees.
The board has selected Gaetz as one of four finalists to become the university's next chief. They are expected to make a recommendation on Thursday.
"As Chairman of the committee responsible for drawing the Senate map, he publicly proclaimed that the legislature's process for redistricting was following the new constitutional provisions even as legislators and staff were conspiring with outside political operatives to not only violate the constitution but also to hide the scheme from the public,'' Goodman wrote.
"How can you possibly consider appointing as president of your university this man who thumbed his nose at the constitution and lied about it publicly? Is this the sort of role model you want for students, faculty, families and the community?"
The Florida Supreme Court agreed with a trial court that the Legislature had intentionally violated the Constitution when it allowed political operatives to infiltrate the redistricting process and drew Congressional and state Senate maps that favored incumbents and Republicans. Court-ordered maps were approved last year and this election cycle is the first time the new maps have been put in place.
Documents filed in Leon County Circuit Court as part of a lawsuit over the Senate map, showed that Republican operatives faked "public" submissions, possessed draft Senate maps more than a month before senators, and submitted Republican-leaning maps that matched pieces that became the foundation of the adopted Senate redistricting plan.
The elaborate plan also included staffing up public hearings with fake testimony and building maps in the shadows and the depositions and documents also showed the degree to which Gaetz, R-Niceville, was involved in the decision making.
The testimony revealed that Gaetz's long-time political consultant Rich Heffley and Republican Party of Florida advisor Frank Terraferma were working on producing maps that were identical to the staff-drafted map more than a month before the Senate released its proposed map on Nov. 28. And before the public release of that map, Gaetz was privately conducting secret briefings with individual senators, some via video conference, in which they discussed possible alterations to the map.
Gaetz would later tout the process as "the most transparent" redistricting in Florida history. But John Guthrie, former staff director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee who retired in June 2015, said Gaetz intentionally met individually with senators so they could "share their reactions" and avoid the public meeting requirements of Senate rules.
Gaetz later admitted that he had made mistakes as head of the Senate's redistricting effort, including not putting political operatives under oath when they appeared before his committee claiming they were unaligned members of the public. But the episode took its toll on Senate relationships.
Gaetz is considered a favorite among the candidates in the politically-charged process of selecting a university president, but he has also drawn the most public opposition. The UWF Faculty Senate passed a resolution Friday opposing to Gaetz as a presidential candidate and UWF students created an online petition, "Argos Against Gaetz."
"In politics, there are a few running for office who are trying to affect the many who are trying to vote, and in this selection process, there are many who are not voters, but who are attempting to influence the few who are voting," Gaetz told the Pensacola News Journal. "It's kind of a reversal of the kind of election process that I've been used to."
Here's is the League of Women Voters' letter: