Backer of federal lawsuit against Sarasota County points to deposition testimony from former chair of county Republican Party in underscoring that past influence
Protests aplenty were resounding over the Sarasota County Commission’s redistricting initiative last year before a burst of news bearing a particular name fueled even greater public outrage.
That name was Robert Waechter.
Yet, Hugh Culverhouse — the former federal prosecutor and Palmer Ranch developer who was the principal force behind a class action redistricting lawsuit against the county — has told The Sarasota News Leader that in spite of losing the case, he believes one positive outcome will involve Waechter.
“I think his influence will be much less [with the commissioners in the future],” Culverhouse said during a May 5 telephone interview.
Culverhouse added that, based on Waechter’s deposition during the litigation and materials collected during the discovery process, it was clear that Waechter long had been inserting himself into County Commission business.
In a motion filed on April 19, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the use of the new district maps during the 2020 election, the attorneys for the plaintiffs described Waechter’s background at length. In 2013, he pleaded guilty in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to a first-degree misdemeanor: Fraudulent Use/Possession of ID of Another Person to Harass.
Waechter admitted to making campaign contributions to Democrats running for office in 2012 in the name of his fellow Siesta Key resident, Lourdes Ramirez.
Reading a prepared statement as part of his pleading, Waechter called his actions “a few moments of sophomoric hand-rubbing glee” that had cost him greatly. “I have embarrassed myself and I have caused great embarrassment to my family and friends,” he said.
In subsequent civil action, Ramirez contended that Waechter smeared her reputation as a Republican, just as she was planning a run for the County Commission. She ultimately lost the 2014 Republican Primary for the District 4 seat to Alan Maio, who was elected to the board in November 2014.
Following Waechter’s admission of guilt, the April 19 permanent injunction motion noted, he was sentenced to three months of community control, followed by two years of probation, and he was fined $5,000.
The motion further pointed out, “In an application for membership on the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, Waechter listed his many positions with the Republican Party and other politically related positions. He is friends with four sitting Commissioners, raised money for them, and provided political advice, as he had done for many years.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert made a statement during one commission meeting last year that indicated she barely knew Waechter and had had no contact with him whatsoever during the redistricting initiative.
With the commissioners — especially Detert — having made a point last year of encouraging members of the public to submit maps with proposed new district boundaries, a person using the name “Adam Smith” turned in a version that moved the traditionally African-American community of Newtown, in Sarasota, from District 1 to District 2.
That sparked outrage among Newtown residents and advocates for them, who said the action was motivated by the desire to see Commissioner Michael Moran re-elected.
Later, news spread that “Adam Smith” was Waechter.
In an Oct. 7, 2019 motion, Commissioner Detert called on the county’s redistricting consultant, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee, to tweak the “Adam Smith” map, so perhaps it could be considered during the November 2019 public hearing scheduled for the adoption of new district lines.
Numerous speakers during commission meetings on redistricting talked of the history of Newtown voters supporting Democratic candidates.
Moran, a Republican who won the District 1 seat in 2016, already was facing the prospect of campaigning against Newtown resident Fredd Atkins, a former Sarasota mayor and city commissioner, who had filed as a Democrat.
Atkins became one of the three lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit Culverhouse championed, which alleged that the redistricting was racially motivated.
On May 4, the federal judge presiding over the case in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa, ruled for Sarasota County, saying the evidence and testimony in depositions did not support the allegation.
The ‘Adam Smith’ map
Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Zac Anderson was the first to reveal that Waechter created the “Adam Smith” redistricting map. Waechter later acknowledged that to The Sarasota News Leader, as well. Waechter also told the News Leader about his past efforts to provide guidance to commissioners during redistricting initiatives.
Waechter was a staunch advocate of the 2019 effort to draw new boundaries, maintaining — as the commissioners did — that growth in South County had left the districts out of balance in terms of population counts since the most recent boundaries were implemented in 2011.
In spite of the public outcry over the path Waechter took to get a map before the board last year, the version he created ultimately was adopted, after the consultant’s tweaks to ensure better population balance.
In fact, Commissioner Moran held up Waechter’s Alternative Map 4.1 during an Oct. 30, 2019 redistricting discussion, claiming that it was based on a map that Democrat Jono Miller, retired director of New College’s Environmental Studies Program, had submitted during the redistricting effort.
During the Nov. 19, 2019 public hearing to adopt a new map, Moran contended that the Miller map divided the county into districts Moran called “Downtown Sarasota,” “Out East” and mid-county, plus a district dominated by the city of Venice and a district dominated by the city of North Port. However, Moran said the commissioners wanted to ensure that more than one board member would represent each of the county’s municipalities. Therefore, they had asked consultant Spitzer to take that into consideration in revising “the Smith map” from Waechter.
(In a Facebook post, Miller expressed dismay at Moran’s comments, writing that he had submitted two maps for consideration and could not see how either could be viewed as the basis for the Waechter map.)
Moran also made the motion to adopt the map that resulted from Waechter’s submission. The motion passed 3-2, with Commissioners Detert and Maio joining Moran in the majority.
A history of influence
The April 19 plaintiffs motion seeking the permanent injunction in the redistricting lawsuit noted the November 2018 passage of a Sarasota County Charter amendment that implemented Single-Member District voting, starting this year. That amendment allows a voter to cast ballots only for commission candidates who live in the same district as the voter. No longer will citizens countywide be able to participate in the election for every open seat on the board.
Kindra Muntz, president of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), which advocated for passage of the amendment, has talked about the fact that Waechter stood in the background at the Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota as she conducted a press conference announcing the securing of enough signatures on petitions to put the proposed Single-Member District amendment on the ballot.
Waechter decried the proposed amendment to the news media, she added.
The April 2019 permanent injunction motion also noted that, after voters approved the Charter amendment, “Waechter began efforts to mute the impact of the change in voting structure,” as indicated in his deposition in the lawsuit.
Moreover, the motion said, “Although Waechter now describes himself as a ‘pariah’ because of his conviction [in regard to impersonating Ramirez with the campaign contributions], he continued to have the same strong influence over the Commissioners and their supporters as he had enjoyed for years. As the former chair of the [county] Republican Party, and a long-term member of its executive committee,” the motion continued, “Waechter yielded immense influence and power with Republican candidates and office holders. For years, he chose favored Republican candidates, opposed Republican candidates whose candidacies he did not approve, and raised money for candidates.” Again, the motion referenced sections of Waechter’s deposition in making those statements.
At another point in his deposition, the motion said, he testified that the commission redistricting initiative in 2011 “was his idea, and he took a ‘lead position’ in accomplishing it.”
However, the motion pointed out, “Waechter claims not to have any email communications, draft maps, and other materials relating to the 2019 redistricting. Waechter testified that it is his practice to put emails in topic folders and then delete them when the topic is completed. (‘I very consciously delete emails.’) He posits that he therefore may have deleted redistricting communications and materials but is not sure.”
Moreover, the motion continued, “He also testified that, because he is ‘a paranoid individual,’ he drilled holes in his two computers’ hard drives and threw [the drives] in the garbage. He does not recall what prompted him to do this. ‘I don’t recall exactly what it was, but it was something that was bothering me and it just, just enough that I’m suspicious.’”
In his May 5 interview with the News Leader, Culverhouse said he believes Waechter’s statements in the deposition impeach any future efforts Waechter might make to involve himself in redistricting.
“I think the county commissioners do not really want to be tagged as ‘Waechter boy’ or ‘girl,’” Culverhouse added.
If he is wrong on that point, Culverhouse said, “I’ll buy ’em all baseball uniforms and put ‘Waechter’ on the back.” Perhaps caps would be a nice touch, too, Culverhouse continued.
Referring to the lead outside counsel working on behalf of the county in the lawsuit, Culverhouse added that he would recommend that Andy Bardos of the GrayRobinson law firm in Tallahassee oversee any future Sarasota County redistricting initiative “and make sure a red flag like Waechter is nowhere around.”
With the kind of professional assistance Bardos could provide, Culverhouse added, “You’re going to be pretty bombproof …”
Then Culverhouse noted that even if he is 71, “I’ve probably a good 10 or 12 years [left for] throwing Molotovs around.”