Legal battle continues over Florida political secrets

Lawsuits contend legislators violated election standards

Associated PressJune 2, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- A legal battle over Florida political secrets keeps on escalating -- and continues to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are three pending lawsuits that contend the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature violated voter-adopted standards when it drew up new legislative and congressional districts last year.

The lengthy litigation has already cost taxpayers nearly $1 million since last July. The Florida Senate alone reports it has spent close to $800,000 on its lawyers.

In the latest action connected to the legal challenges, a Leon County circuit judge signed an order holding an established Republican consulting firm in contempt for failing to turn over documents connected to the lawsuits.

The Gainesville-based firm Data Targeting and its employees did turn over nearly 2,000 pages of documents a day earlier, but they are still insisting that they be kept private. Judge Terry Lewis first asked for the documents back in April.

Lewis said during a Friday hearing that a senior magistrate, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, would go over the documents with attorneys from both sides in a closed-door session this week.

The coalition of groups who sued the Legislature want the documents, which include emails, to try to connect them with the final maps adopted by legislators.

"We think it's highly relevant," said Adam Schachter, a Miami attorney representing the League of Women Voters and others. "It's our belief that these paid political consultants were working with the Legislature to draw the maps that became law."

Pat Bainter, the owner of Data Targeting, argued otherwise in an affidavit filed with the court. He said the documents were internal deliberations about political strategy that could subject his firm to retaliation. He called the push to get the documents part of an "intense partisan attack."

Attorneys for Data Targeting told Lewis that they have already handed over any emails or communications between the Legislature and their staff.

Those initial documents showed top GOP officialsmet in late 2010 to brain-storm redistricting with political consultants and legislative staffers after the amendments had already passed.

Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new population figures.

In 2010 voters approved the "Fair Districts" amendments that mandate thatdistricts cannot be drawnto protect incumbents or members of a certain party.

Legislators last year adopted maps that led to the election of more Democrats to both Congress and the Legislature. But critics contend the final districts still do not reflect Florida's political divide.

A trial over the districts is scheduled for August, but before then attorneys for the Legislature, the consultants and the coalition have been wrangling over what information should be allowed as potential evidence.

Last week a divided state appeals court ruled thatlegislators and legislative staff don't have to answer questions related to the lawsuits.

The court decided by a 2-to-1 margin that legislators and legislative staff enjoy a long-standing privilege that shields them from having to testify about legislative business.

The lawsuits filed so far have already caused secrets to spill out that show that both sides may have used partisan political consultants to draw up maps in violation of the new standards.

Lawyers for the Legislature obtained documents that showed the attorneys working for the coalition of groups supporting Fair Districts used political consultants to draw up its own maps that were given to the court.

One email even showed how one consultant wanted "to scoop as many Jews out" as possible out of two cities and put them in the Congressional district that is to home to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.

Another email stated that the "underlying goal" was to increase "safe Democratic seats" and the number of "competitive seats."

Attorneys for the Legislature have filed a motion contending those emails show that the coalition is "steeped in partisanship" and should be denied any chance to throw out the existing districts.

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