(CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) – An appeals court ruled Thursday that a political consultant’s documents about the redistricting process could remain sealed, potentially throwing a wrench into the case of a coalition of voting-rights organizations fighting the state’s congressional maps.
Meanwhile, inside a Leon County courtroom, a key aide in the 2012 redistricting process contradicted House Speaker Will Weatherford’s testimony earlier this week that Weatherford did not know about a 2010 meeting between legislative staffers and Republican operatives.
But the proceedings were to some extent overshadowed by the 1st District Court of Appeals’ ruling on documents produced by Pat Bainter and employees of his Gainesville-based consulting firm, Data Targeting, Inc. The appeals court issued an order that would keep secret 538 pages of documents.
Bainter and his firm say divulging the documents could reveal trade secrets and endanger his firm’s First Amendment rights. Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, though, had ruled the documents should be turned over to the plaintiffs and would become public records if they were entered into evidence.
What information Bainter must turn over has been at the center of a long-running dispute between the consultants and the voting-rights organizations and voters challenging the maps. The lawsuit argues the congressional districts violate the anti-gerrymandering Fair District amendments approved by voters in 2010. The trial in that case began Monday.
Mark Herron, a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs, said it was too early Thursday afternoon to decide what those fighting the map might do.
“It may take us a day or two to sort it out,” he said.
Before and after the appeals-court ruling was handed down in the afternoon, the trial continued as Alex Kelly, a staffer who led the House efforts to draw the map, testified for most of the day.
At one point, Kelly appeared to directly contradict Weatherford’s memory about whether the House leader, then chairing the chamber’s Redistricting Committee, knew about a Dec. 3, 2010, meeting between Kelly, another legislative aide and political consultants at state GOP headquarters in Tallahassee.
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.
He also said Matt Bahl, chief of staff to then-Speaker Dean Cannon, knew about the meeting, though Bahl wasn’t entirely comfortable with Kelly’s attendance. Kelly, who also had concerns, said he was “pretty confident” that he would have told Weatherford and Bahl who was going to attend the meeting.
But Weatherford said Tuesday that Kelly did not ask for his permission — and didn’t need it, because committee staff worked for Cannon.
“(Kelly) had not cleared it with me,” Weatherford said. “I didn’t know he was going. I didn’t know about the meeting.”
Weatherford also testified Tuesday that Kelly should likely have stayed away.
“I did say in my deposition that had he asked me about it, I probably would have advised him not to do it,” he said.
This report is by Brandon Larrabee with The News Service of Florida.
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