TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida G.O.P. officials coordinated with Republican political consultants in an effort to quietly push for favorable state Senate maps, according to depositions and court documents.
A lawsuit challenging the state Senate maps was filed in 2012, but it lay dormant as a separate suit over the state’s congressional maps winded its way through the courts.
That lawsuit eventually reached the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled last week that eight congressional seats violated anti-gerrymandering provisions passed by voters in 2010.
After yielding to the congressional case, legal motions and depositions have resumed in the state Senate case, further revealing how political consultants approached a redistricting process that was fundamentally altered by constitutional amendments passed in 2010, which sought to eliminate incumbent protection and political favoritism.
During the congressional lawsuit, political consultants targeted by the plaintiffs argued they were being unfairly maligned because of their profession, and said their status as political professionals should not cost them the right to participate in government.
“Political consultants are people,” Stafford Jones, head of the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee, said in a Wednesday interview. “It does not matter what you do for a living, you could be a plumber. You have the right to participate.”
Jones was not a prominent part of the congressional lawsuit, but emails show he may take a starring role in the second legal challenge.
The Florida Supreme Court disagreed with the consultants' defense, ruling that emails showing the Legislature “communicated and collaborated with partisan political operatives” was enough to prove the maps were drawn with “unconstitutional intent.” As a result, lawmakers must now return for a special session to redraw eight congressional seats.
If the judges rule that Republicans colluded to influence the state Senate lines for partisan purposes—as they did in the congressional suit—they could order lawmakers to redraw the Senate map.
Emails and depositions in the second legal challenge show Jones helped find citizens to submit consultant-drawn maps and state G.O.P. officials and outside consultants developed a list of people who would use scripted “talking points” drafted by Republican officials to support those maps.
Some of the information was disclosed in November when a judge ruled that more than 500 emails from Gainesville-based Republican firm Data Targeting should be released as part of the case. The firm had argued against the decision, saying the information was private and protected by the First Amendment.
On Nov. 29, 2011, Robert Krames, a staffer with the firm, emailed an updated version of “the list,” which was a group of people recruited to reach out to redistricting committees, who would use talking points to support maps backed by the firm and other G.O.P. consultants.
“I have contacted everyone on my list and am working through that list again now distributing the talking points and Senate committee contact info to all again,” wrote Jessica Corbett, a Republican political consultant, in an email also sent Nov. 29.
The updated list was sent to Corbett; Andrew Wiggins, a former Republican Party of Florida staffer; Pat Bainter, who founded Data Targeting; and Matt Mitchell, a staffer with the company.
Included on the list was Alex Patton, a Gainesville-based Republican political consultant whose firm had done work with Corbett. He was among those who Corbett contacted when sending talking points and Senate contact information.
One minute after Corbett sent an email to Patton, he responded by saying he “submitted comments.”
Patton, who declined comment, was deposed in May, one of the first depositions taken as part of the state Senate lawsuit. He told attorneys representing the group of plaintiffs, which includes the League of Women Voters of Florida, that he didn’t remember the emails.
“I have no memory of this exchange or anything involved around it,” he said in the deposition. “I don’t understand.”
On Nov. 29, the same day Krames sent out the updated list, he also sent an email to Wiggins, a state G.O.P. staffer, to keep him updated on the covert public relations campaign to push the maps they supported.
“Andrew, for your reference here are the goals we have set for this portion of the campaign,” he wrote.
The goals included distributing “all comment in support of proposed maps” by Dec. 5, 2011 and making a minimum of 100 emails, and 50 phone calls to lawmakers and the creation of 10 YouTube videos, according to emails.
Months before the push to support the already-submitted maps, Jones, the leader of the Alachua County G.O.P., drew up talking points and “roles” people were to play at a July 2011 redistricting public hearing held in Gainesville.
As they prepared to redraw the state political lines, lawmakers on redistricting committees held 26 public hearings across the state to seek input on how the lines should change.
They used the meetings to tout the 2012 redistricting process as the most transparent in state history.
The day of the July 13 hearing, Jones sent him a set of talking points that indicated he was supposed to play the role of someone confused by Fair District amendments.
“Dick, why do I have to be the confused guy?” Patton jokingly responded in July 2011.
He said during his deposition that was a “smart ass“ response. He and Jones used to be friends and business partners, but have since had a falling out.
During the public hearing, Patton followed Jones’ scripted talking points.
“At the end of the day, I just don’t understand the language used in the amendment and exactly what they are trying to intend to do,” Patton said during the hearing.
Jones sent out similar talking points and roles to at least 20 people, according to emails. He would not address the specifics of his depositions in an interview, including whether or not all 20 people testified at the public hearing.
Documents made public as part of the legal challenges also show that Patton submitted state Senate maps provided to him by Jones that were likely drawn by Republican Party of Florida consultants, including one being paid to consult the party on redistricting issues.
Jones sent an email to Patton on Nov. 1, 2011 asking him to submit a map to the redistricting committee. Patton admitted during his deposition that he did not draw the map, or even see it before submitting. Despite that, the body of his email when submitting it to the Legislature read, in part, “please accept my proposed Florida Senate map."
Jones also specifically asked Patton to send it from his personal email account and remove any sign that it had been forwarded to him.
“Again, when you send it check the subject line and remove any indication that it is a forward,” Jones wrote.
During his deposition, Patton was also asked about a map sent from Frank Terraferma, a veteran G.O.P. consultant who oversaw the Republican Party of Florida’s House races, to Rich Heffley, who was being paid $10,000-per-month by the state G.O.P. to consult on redistricting.
Emails show Terraferma sent the map to Heffley at 11:29 a.m., just hours before Jones sent a map to Patton to submit to the redistricting committee.
Patton’s map had identical characteristics to that of the one considered by Terraferma and Heffley.
During his deposition, Patton said he knew nothing about the similarities.
“So evidently a fellow by the name of Frank Terraferma and Rich Heffley had this map on November 1st, 2011 before you did, right?” asked Thomas Zehnder, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“I don’t know what they had,” Patton said.
Remzey Samarrai, who was has been involved in Alachua County local politics and is friends with Patton, detailed a similar process for submitting his own comments. Samarrai gave an early deposition as part of the case, saying Jones forwarded him a map, which he submitted to the redistricting committee without looking at or even opening the attachment.
“I did the chairman a favor,” he said.
Samarrai also took personal shots at Jones, who he had previously worked with on campaigns.
“He asked me to do something,” he said of Jones asking him to file the map. "Stafford can be a whiny little bitch and he won’t give up until you do it, so I did it.”
In an interview, Jones said Samarrai “rewrote history” between the two. He said the two had a falling out during the 2014 Republican primary race between Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville and challenger Jake Rush. Patton and Samarrai worked for Rush, who is also an attorney representing them in the redistricting lawsuit.
The same blueprint—consultants drawing maps and using third parties to submit them—was also used during the congressional map-drawing. In the congressional lawsuit, the court found that changes made by G.O.P. consultants ultimately made it into the final maps.
The consultants and Republican officials involved in the case have always maintained that they were constitutionally petitioning their government. Emails made public as part of the lawsuits, though, indicate they were nervous.
Mitchell, a Data Targeting staffer, sent a November 29 to a group of consultants. In it, he says Bainter, the firm’s founder, wanted to stress that everyone be “smart in how we prep every single person we talk to.”
“Pat and I will probably sound almost paranoid on this over the next week, but it will be so much more worthwhile to be cautious,” he wrote.