Wilton Simpson accuses Miami Herald reporter of pre-litigation collusion regarding redistricting

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Simpson said he supports a free press, but fears Mary Ellen Klas' approach will lead to litigation.

Senate President Wilton Simpson sent an angry letter to the Miami Herald accusing reporter Mary Ellen Klas of dangerous bias.

Specifically, Simpson said the veteran reporter had often penned pointed articles and asked leading questions about the once-a-decade redistricting process. While complaints of media bias are nothing new to politics, Simpson took the extraordinary step of sending a complaint to Miami Herald Executive Editor Monica Richardson.

“Over my decade of service in the Florida Senate, I have had many interactions with reporters, including from the Miami Herald. I have never written an editor of a paper to raise a concern, even when I did not agree with coverage,” Simpson wrote. “However, I am compelled to bring to your attention troubling actions by Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief, Ms. Mary Ellen Klas.”

On Wednesday evening, Richardson told Florida Politics she responded to Simpson’s letter shortly after receiving it. The letter is dated Nov. 22.

“Simpson alleges that comments and questions made by Klas were inappropriate for a journalist. As I told the Senator in my written reply, the Herald disagrees. Klas, who covered the last reapportionment process that was a legal quagmire for the Senate, was using her experience in that coverage to inform her work this time around. And her conversation with Bracy reflects that,” Richardson said.

The Trilby Republican sent his message on Florida Senate letterhead. In it, Simpson praised Herald coverage of the redistricting process a decade ago, which ultimately saw courts strike down maps for violating Florida’s Fair Districts requirements on drawing political boundaries.

“By way of background, it has been well-reported that the Florida Senate did not sufficiently guard against political and partisan influences in the past redistricting cycle,” Simpson wrote. “When I became President of the Senate, one of my chief goals was to create a process that included strong policies and procedures to guard against inappropriate political influence of the process. Attached are several memos to our members cautioning them about speaking with outside influences that would seek to manipulate the process in a way that could violate the Florida Constitution.”

Indeed, every memo issued by Sen. Ray Rodrigues, chair of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, has closed with reminders of avoiding special interests’ influence when discussing redistricting, including a memo sent on Tuesday.

Notably, the draft maps produced in the Senate so far have received generally positive reviews from watchdog groups and even Democrats, who make up a minority in the Senate. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which viewed House drafts more harshly, issued ‘B’ grades to Senate proposals in the public domain.

But Simpson said Klas’ reporting has not only been less favorable but appears oriented toward preluding legal challenges like those that derailed maps approved by the Legislature in 2012.

“My concern, which will be outlined with specific examples below, is that it appears Mary Ellen Klas has crossed the line of reporting and informing to advocating for organizations that will bring litigation against the Legislature,” Simpson wrote. “As you will read below, she literally asked a State Senator to pose questions before the committee in order to build a record for litigation. Such collusion is not only inappropriate as a reporter, it puts Senators in a position to violate the policies and procedures I have set up in order to keep the process free from improper influence.”

Simpson quotes questions in a gaggle and writes in the letter that Klas at one point said: “That debate should be flushed out, and we should hear about it before the courts get this. If nobody asks these questions, they don’t get it on the record, and if it’s not on the record, they aren’t held to it, and we go to court.”

The quotes appear to come from a gaggle in which Florida Politics also participated with Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat. Klas, according to a Florida Politics recording of the gaggle, said: “We should hear about it in public forums like this. But when there’s no — nobody asked those questions, they don’t get it on the record. And if it’s not on the record, they don’t have to be held to it when they go to court.”

Differences in transcription likely relate to the quality of the audio recording.

According to Richardson, neither Bracy nor Klas was aware that Senate staff were recording.

The Senate President also took issue with a written series of questions, including how decisions were made on the racial makeup of districts.

“More disturbing is that Ms. Klas’ subsequent article includes commentary on these issues by a so-called redistricting expert who she fails to identify as a professional expert witness who stands to profit in redistricting litigation against the state,” Simpson says. “Through this series of interactions between Ms. Klas, Senators, staff, and counsel, it has become clear that she is seeking to pre-litigate the 2022 redistricting cycle, pitting Senate counsel against expert witnesses frequently used by plaintiffs in litigation against the state, thereby creating a manipulated legislative record to be used in the courts.”

The fact redistricting has proved a litigious process across the country makes Klas’ questions a more significant concern than mere unhappiness with the tone of reporting, Simpson suggests.

“I have great respect for the independent analysis and review of our work product made possible by the free press,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, Ms. Klas has crossed the line between reporting and interfering. To address the serious nature of this interference, staff directed the Senator to disregard the suggestions she made when contemplating future requests for information and analysis from professional staff.”

Richardson said Florida Power and Light had crossed the line from simple criticism to an unfair attack on the outlet and a personal attack against Klas when it published a web page attacking Klas for her recent unrelated reporting on energy legislation. On that webpage, FPL released the letter from Simpson and a recording of Klas, which it obtained in its attack on the Herald.

“Klas has been a highly regarded member of the Tallahassee press corps for more than 20 years. She does hard-nosed accountability reporting about FPL, the Legislature, Governors, and many other people and institutions,” Richardson said. “Some of her coverage of the largest electric utility in the state and the nation has been critical when important issues needed to be raised about solar power, rates charged to consumers, political influence, and more.

“That’s a journalist doing her job on behalf of Herald readers and the Florida community.”

Richardson responded to both Simpson’s letter and a similar missive from FPL about Klas. The complete response is below:

“Florida Power & Light has gone to great lengths to try to discredit the good journalistic work of the Miami Herald and its Tallahassee Bureau Chief, Mary Ellen Klas, because it takes issue with a story published Dec. 20, 2021, about its role in drafting legislation to alter the net metering program in Florida that lets owners of rooftop solar arrays sell energy back to the grid at retail rates.

“FPL or its representatives essentially wrote the bill that is under consideration by the Legislature.

“A letter to the editor was submitted by FPL to the Herald stating its position but also going beyond the facts of the net metering matter to attempt to smear Klas’ work and her reputation. The letter was edited by the Herald Editorial Board to stick to the facts of the net metering issue and published. Letters to the editor are routinely edited by the Editorial Board before publication. News editors and reporters play no role in the process. The Editorial Board is independent of the Herald newsroom, with a separate mission but the same standards for fact.

“FPL objected to the letter not being published in its entirety and has made its opinion known publicly on its website, as is its right to do. However, in doing so, it raises a wholly unrelated matter concerning a letter written to me by Senate President Wilton Simpson regarding a conversation Klas and Sen. Randolph Bracy had in public in the Capitol. I responded to Simpson’s letter not long after it was received.

“Simpson’s letter quotes the conversation from a recording made by a Senate staffer who was not involved in the conversation but was standing nearby. Neither party knew of the recording at the time. Simpson alleges that comments and questions made by Klas were inappropriate for a journalist. As I told the Senator in my written reply, the Herald disagrees. Klas, who covered the last reapportionment process that was a legal quagmire for the Senate, was using her experience in that coverage to inform her work this time around. And her conversation with Bracy reflects that.

“Klas has been a highly regarded member of the Tallahassee press corps for more than 20 years. She does hard-nosed accountability reporting about FPL, the Legislature, Governors and many other people and institutions. Some of her coverage of the largest electric utility in the state and the nation has been critical when important issues needed to be raised about solar power, rates charged to consumers, political influence, and more. That’s a journalist doing her job on behalf of Herald readers and the Florida community.

“At the Herald, we’re used to criticism, too. But this criticism has crossed the line into an unfair attack on the Herald, as well as a personal attack on a well-respected member of the Herald staff.”

— Monica Richardson, Miami Herald Executive Editor.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


2 comments

  • Alex

    January 5, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Yes, yes.

    It’s all a massive conspiracy between Hillary, Soros, the MSM, the Deep State, professors/school teachers, scientists, doctors, Hollywood, election workers/voting machine companies, social media, and anyone else the right “feels” is out to get them, which nowadays is just about everyone.

    Conservatives haven’t seemed to figure out there’s a much simpler and more logical conclusion;

    They’re simply wrong.

    • John

      January 6, 2022 at 1:06 pm

      Or, they could simply be leading questions.

Comments are closed.


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