TALLAHASSEE — More than 500 pages of emails kept secret during an ongoing redistricting legal battle shed light on the behind-the-scene efforts by a handful of GOP political consultants to influence Florida’s political lines, according to documents obtained by the Scripps-Tribune Capital Bureau.
They highlight, among other things, an early plan that would have drawn the then-longest serving GOP member of Congress out of office, the admission that former state Sen. John Thrasher did not live in his district, and a strategy to use a well-known GOP consultant to recruit people to submit maps as part of the formal process.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the documents, which are from Gainesville-based GOP consulting firm Data Targeting, must be unsealed as part of a long-running redistricting lawsuit. A last-minute appeal from the firm was rejected Friday by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clearance Thomas.
The documents are scheduled to be made public on Dec. 1, but the Scripps-Tribune Capital Bureau obtained copies of the 538 pages.
The underlying redistricting lawsuit was filed by a coalition of plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida. They said the state’s congressional maps were drawn to favor Republicans during the 2012 redistricting process, which is at odds with anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state constitution.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis agreed, tossing the maps after a 12-day trial this summer. During a special legislative session, lawmakers redrew the maps, which Lewis approved. That ruling is being appealed by plaintiffs.
Pat Bainter, the founder of Data Targeting, has argued that his firm was not a named party in the lawsuit, so the court could not legally force them to release internal company documents.
“The Florida Supreme Court ruling unsealing my personal documents further undermines the constitutional rights of any citizen who dares participate in democracy,” he said in a statement.
Many of the documents feature consultants talking about House and Senate redistricting issues, not those tied to congressional maps, which were the subject of the lawsuit.
The stars of the emails are Bainter, Rich Heffley, a consultant who advised the Republican Party of Florida on redistricting matters, Frank Terraferma, who led the party’s House redistricting efforts, and Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa-based political consultant.
In one of the more notable admissions, Bainter says Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, actually lives in Clay County, not in his St. Johns County-based district.
“He actually live in Clay County and would hope to end up there,” Bainter wrote to Richard Johnston, owner of Public Concepts, a West Palm Beach political consulting firm.
Thrasher’s residency had been a hot-button issue ever since he left Clay County to run in a 2009 special election for the St. Johns County-based seat.
He maintained a home in Clay County, and had to fight persistent rumors that he did not live in his district. Thrasher, who was recently hired as Florida State University’s president, has said in past interviews that he had property tax exemptions and a driver’s license in his listed district.
In another exchange, Pedicini talks about a proposed congressional map that would draw longtime Pinellas County U.S. Rep. Bill Young, a Republican, out of his seat. The conversation came when discussing the potential of drawing a minority seat in the Tampa Bay-area.
“If you have to have a minority-majority seat, this does it,” wrote Pedicini of the plan that would also “retire Bill Young.”
It was in a Nov 23, 2011 email to Bainter. That plan never came to fruition, and Young successfully ran for reelection in 2012. He died in Nov. 2013 as the longest serving Republican member of the U.S. House.
The emails also indicate that Stafford Jones, a political consultant and head of the Alachua County Republican Party, recruited people to submit maps drawn by political consultants as part of the formal state process.
“I can direct Stafford to have his people send these maps via email,” wrote Matt Mitchell, a firm staffer, in an Oct. 17, 2011 email to Bainter.
It was a reference to sending maps to the redistricting email address setup by the state for public submissions. That chatter referred to state Senate maps, but it did follow a pattern that was laid out during the trial focused on congressional districts.
Heffley and Terraferma both testified that maps they drew were identical to those submitted by members of the public. That includes a map submitted by Alex Posada, a former FSU student, who became a star witness during the trial.
Terraferma testified that much of Posada’s map was “identical” to the one he drew. Portions of that version were used in the final congressional maps. Jones, the longtime Republican consultant, was never short on people to submit maps drawn by Data Targeting and other consultants.
In an Oct. 2011 email from Bainter to staffers “building alternate maps for submitting,” he was clear there would be no shortage of people to submit the proposals.
“Stafford (is) getting me 10 more people at least,” Bainter wrote.