TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – An aide to former House Speaker Dean Cannon admitted Tuesday that he made a mistake by secretly feeding redistricting plans to a Republican political consultant in 2012, but denied that the arrangement tainted the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts.
Kirk Pepper, a deputy chief of staff for Cannon, told a Leon County judge Tuesday that he was simply trying to help GOP consultant Marc Reichelderfer during the first redistricting effort subject to the anti-gerrymandering Fair District amendments approved by voters in 2010.
Pepper testified on the second day of a trial in lawsuit brought by voting-rights groups arguing that the congressional districts violated the new standards, which bar the Legislature from favoring or harming political parties or candidates during the once-a-decade redistricting process.
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 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.
But Pepper also denied that the maps gave Reichelderfer a chance to influence the process in order to help Republicans.
“There was no information that came back from Marc to me or, that I ever saw, to Dean Cannon on how to do maps, how to draw maps, any advice, any guidance, any counsel, anything of (the) like,” Pepper said.
Current Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chaired the House Redistricting Committee in 2012, told reporters Tuesday that he was also unhappy with Pepper.
“I was very disappointed to hear that he did that…I think had the speaker known he’d done it, had I known he’d done it, there would have been serious consequences for him,” Weatherford said after testifying himself.
Pepper also attempted to explain a Nov. 27, 2011, email conversation with Reichelderfer about a congressional map that Pepper provided to the GOP operative through an online program known as Dropbox.
“Actually, the Webster seat is a bit messed up,” Reichelderfer wrote, referring to the Central Florida district of Republican Congressman Dan Webster.
“Performance or geography,” Pepper responded.
The thread ends there.
The groups challenging the map have highlighted that discussion as evidence that Pepper was looking for Reichelderfer’s input. But Pepper said it was actually a sarcastic attempt to brush back the consultant by underscoring the fact that they couldn’t discuss what might be wrong with the district.
“I could have said it in a much more clear way, but it was late at night, and I meant to brief and I meant to be blunt and I meant to be sarcastic,” Pepper said.
For his part, Weatherford also said that Alex Kelly, the head of the House’s redistricting staff at the time, should likely have stayed away from a Dec. 3, 2010, meeting where legislative employees, GOP consultants and lawyers talked about the new process.
“I did say in my deposition that had he asked me about it, I probably would have advised him not to do it,” Weatherford said.
But he added that he was certain Kelly would have made it a point to emphasize to the consultants that they couldn’t be involved in redistricting anymore.
Weatherford also defended the Legislature’s decision to boost above 50 percent the African-American share of the vote in the district of Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown. He said the Senate convinced him to adopt their plan, which critics of the map say was intended to remove Democratic-leaning voters from surrounding districts.
“I don’t remember all the arguments for it. I just remember it was a very compelling argument,” Weatherford said.
The speaker later said under questioning from George Meros, a lawyer for the Legislature, that one reason lawmakers increased the black voting-age population in Brown’s district was to prevent having the map thrown out under the federal Voting Rights Act.
“It was the nightmare scenario,” Weatherford said of that possibility. “It would have created a lot of electoral chaos.”
Talking to reporters after his testimony, Weatherford defended the map by ticking off a list of Republicans who lost primary or general elections after the lines were redrawn — though he didn’t bring up that many of the defeated Republicans were also hurt by scandal, controversial comments or voter discontent.
“The proof is in the pudding on the map,” Weatherford said. “Go look at it. Congressman David Rivera’s not here anymore. Congressman Allen West is not here anymore. Congresswoman Sandy Adams is not here anymore. Congressman Cliff Stearns is not here anymore.”
This report is by Brandon Larrabee with The News Service of Florida.
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