Politics

Weekly Roundup: Out of the Shadows and Into the Light

By: Dara Kam News Service of Florida | Posted: May 24, 2014 3:55 AM
Leon County Circuit Court

Secrecy was the overarching theme this week.

An appeals court agreed to let a GOP consultant keep his redistricting-related documents hush-hush.

In the closely tied lawsuit over the once-a-decade redistricting process, House staffers provided a peek into secret discussions between legislative aides and Republican operatives while the new maps were being drawn.


Meanwhile, open government advocates had a setback in their challenge to elected officials' use of blind trusts to shield financial assets.

And a months-long whisper campaign about GOP powerhouse John Thrasher taking the helm of his alma mater finally emerged from the shadows, virtually turning off the lights for other candidates.


REDISTRICTING REDUX:

In a blow to a coalition of voting-rights organizations fighting the state's congressional map, an appeals court ruled Thursday that GOP consultant Pat Bainter's documents can remain sealed.

Bainter contends that divulging 538 pages of documents from his Gainesville-based consulting firm, Data Targeting Inc., could reveal trade secrets and endanger his firm's First Amendment rights.

The information has been at the center of a long-running dispute between the consultants and the voting-rights organizations and voters challenging the map. The lawsuit argues the congressional districts violate the anti-gerrymandering Fair District amendments approved by voters in 2010.

The documents may remain secret, but the trial in that case, which kicked off Monday, pulled back the curtain on meetings between GOP consultants and legislative staffers and, for Capitol watchers, exposed some juicy tidbits about the dysfunctional relationship between former House Speaker Dean Cannon and former Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

On Thursday, Alex Kelly -- a former House staffer who led the chamber's efforts to draw the map -- contradicted current House Speaker Will Weatherford's testimony earlier this week that Weatherford did not know about a 2010 meeting between legislative staffers and Republican operatives.

The meeting has become a focal point for the map's critics, as they try to build a case that party operatives improperly influenced the final shape of congressional boundaries. Under the Fair District amendments, lawmakers are barred from drawing lines that are meant to help or hurt political parties or candidates.

Kelly said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, knew about the get-together and approved of Kelly's attendance.

"I can't say I remember his exact words, but I was blessed to go to the meeting," Kelly said.

Earlier this week, Weatherford, who was chairman of the redistricting committee, had testified that Kelly did not ask for his permission -- and didn't need it, because committee staff worked for then-speaker Cannon.

"(Kelly) had not cleared it with me," Weatherford said. "I didn't know he was going. I didn't know about the meeting."

The trial began Monday with hours of grilling of GOP consultant Marc Reichelderfer, who repeatedly denied that he provided specific feedback to Cannon and Kirk Pepper, one of the speaker's top aides, on how to craft new districts that would help Republicans.

Reichelderfer said he didn't specifically recall what came of an email conversation with Pepper about a congressional map that Pepper gave him through an online program known as Dropbox.

"Actually, the Webster seat is a bit messed up," Reichelderfer wrote in the email conversation, referring to the Central Florida district of Republican Congressman Dan Webster.

"Performance or geography," Pepper responded.

Pepper testified that the exchange was a sarcastic one. He also admitted that he erred by secretly feeding redistricting plans to Reichelderfer in 2012 but denied that the arrangement tainted the redrawing of the state's congressional districts.

According to computer records and testimony, Pepper in some cases provided Reichelderfer with copies of the plans being crafted by House mapmakers weeks before they became public.

"In hindsight, I wouldn't have done that again," Pepper said under questioning from David King, a lawyer for those challenging the map. "But it was intended to help a friend who was cut out of a process that determines how he makes his living."

Pepper, who now works for Cannon as a lobbyist, said he gave Reichelderfer the maps without the then-speaker's approval. Cannon, who is expected to testify next week, was upset when he found out about the transfer months later from media reports, Pepper said.

"I think he said that was stupid," Pepper said.


ARE BLIND TRUSTS TOO SECRET?

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday sent a lawsuit challenging elected officials’ use of blind trusts to a lower court, likely delaying a decision in the case over the constitutionality of a 2013 law.

Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, filed the lawsuit last week, arguing that blind trusts violate the "full and public" disclosure requirements of the Sunshine Amendment, which requires elected officials to provide details about their financial interests. The Sunshine Amendment is considered one of the late governor's chief legacies, and Apthorp is represented by Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a close friend of Askew's who helped craft the open-government law overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1976.

Apthorp's petition asked the Supreme Court to prohibit Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting the qualifying papers of any candidate using a blind trust. The five-day qualifying period for this year’s candidates begins June 16.

According to the lawsuit, Gov. Rick Scott is now the only candidate known to use a blind trust. Scott received the blessing of the state ethics commission before transferring his assets to the blind trust during his first year in office.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz and Weatherford, all Republicans, on Monday asked the high court to dismiss the case. Bondi's lawyers also argued the case should be sent to a lower court if the Supreme Court did not dismiss it.

Apthorp's attorneys filed a motion Wednesday seeking oral arguments in the Supreme Court. But just hours later, justices referred the case to circuit court in Leon County.


FAT LADY HASN'T SUNG YET, BUT …

Rumor once had it that Scott would pick Thrasher, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman and veteran lawmaker, to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor's office.

That didn't pan out. But ever since former Florida State University President Eric Barron announced in February that he was ditching his Tallahassee digs for the same job at Penn State University, Thrasher's name has been at the top of the list of possible replacements.

This week, speculation about Thrasher's interest in the post ended when FSU's search committee took a "pause" so it could interview the St. Augustine Republican for the position.

On Monday, D'Alemberte, a Democrat who was the president of the university from 1994 to 2003, sent a letter nominating Thrasher. "During my time as president of the university, John repeatedly was the legislator who understood the need to support higher education and he always took a direct interest in the issues that related to FSU," D'Alemberte wrote. "But for John Thrasher, there would be no medical school here at Florida State University."

On Wednesday, search consultant Bill Funk told committee members that the "irregular" step of putting the search on hold was necessary because the "long shadow" of Thrasher, who received undergrad and law degrees from FSU, had intimidated other qualified candidates.

"We're not endorsing John for the role," said Funk, founder and president of Dallas-based consulting firm R. William Funk & Associates. "But we are saying that John is casting a long shadow. It's limiting our opportunity to put together the kind of pool that this committee and that this university deserves."

The university's board of trustees will get an up or down recommendation from the committee some time after the Thrasher interview, which is set for June 11. The board's chairman Allan Bense, a former House speaker, said Wednesday that the process "isn't a done deal."

The decision to interview Thrasher quickly drew opposition from students and faculty. Several claimed Thrasher has "hijacked" the process by covertly maneuvering for the post. Search committee members had said in February the selection would weigh more on academic credentials than political connections.

Jennifer Proffitt, president of the FSU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, expected the process would lean toward Thrasher, but said the action Wednesday was more "blatant" than she anticipated.

"I think this meeting effectively shut down anyone who would have applied," Proffitt said.


STORY OF THE WEEK: A Leon County circuit judge heard testimony in a trial about whether the Legislature violated constitutional requirements when drawing congressional districts in 2012.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Florida TaxWatch has once again shown that it is possible to be absent all year long from any engagement in the budget process, do no research into the merits of any appropriation, utter not one word of testimony on any proposal or alternative and still convince well-meaning people to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep a well-paid staff employed to absolutely no positive effect other than to get mentioned in one news cycle." -- Senate President Don Gaetz, after Florida TaxWatch recommended that Gov. Rick Scott veto about $121 million from the new state budget.

 


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