Earlier this week, the Miami Herald’s Capital Bureau chief, Mary Ellen Klas, became national news – even briefly making the Drudge Report – after getting caught interfering in the state’s redistricting process on an audio recording made last November. But rather than disciplining Klas, or at the very least, explaining to the public why her actions didn’t cross a line into partisan interference, the Miami Herald instead has ignored the evidence and pointed fingers in every direction except at their own reporter.
For those unfamiliar, every decade, lawmakers in all fifty states use official census data to redraw their state and federal political maps that have the potential to swing the balance of power in state capitals and in Washington D.C. The process is always contentious, often highly partisan, and strictly controlled by a long history of state and federal laws and court rulings.
The audio recording that came to light this week exposed the partisan efforts of Klas, a card-carrying union organizer, who appears to have relied closely on input from a University of Florida political science professor to urge a Democrat state senator to help her build a legislative record that includes highly sensitive racial demographic voter performance data – information that is restricted and in some cases prohibited by the Florida constitution. Efforts to obtain that information, according to Klas’s own words, could be used to strengthen potential legal challenges. Left unsaid, but known by those familiar with the process: those challenges will be brought by left-leaning third party groups who are likely to call the UF professor as a paid expert witness to bolster their case.
Make no mistake, left-wing groups like the League of Women Voters, and a handful of lesser-known but equally progressive organizations have been salivating over the chance to impugn the redistricting process adopted by the majority Republican Florida legislature. And those groups are growing frustrated because they, like other partisan groups on the right, have equally and intentionally been shut out of the process by Florida lawmakers in order to preserve the integrity of their work.
That’s why Klas’s attempt to influence a Democrat senator on the redistricting committee, passing along the advice of a potential witness in future lawsuits by those left-wing groups, is such an egregious violation of the integrity of the process. Klas was literally caught coaching a Democrat member of the committee on how to bolster a future court case brought by Democrat-leaning groups.
After hearing the audio of Klas trying to interfere, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson fired off a letter on November 22nd to Herald Executive Editor Monica Richardson and pointed out that Klas’s attempt to influence the redistricting process crossed the line “from reporting to interference.” The process put in place by the Florida legislature, as Simpson rightly pointed out, is highly restricted by the Florida Constitution and is tightly controlled to avoid exactly the kind of partisan meddling in which Klas got caught.
Which brings us to the blustery response from the Miami Herald, led by Richardson, in which she intentionally ignored the allegations and evidence of interference leveled at her reporter and instead pointed fingers in every direction except that of Klas. Her seven paragraph statement goes off the rails from the very beginning, attacking one of the state’s utility companies, Florida Power & Light, because they mentioned the Klas interference as evidence in their own broader complaint about the Herald’s coverage.
“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…” the Miami Herald’s statement to The Capitolist began.
Four paragraphs later, Richardson finally brought up the matter of Klas’s interference in the redistricting process, not to defend Klas’s actions, but to again attack FPL for including the audio recording of Klas’s interference in its criticism of the Herald.
Mary Ellen Klas, Monica Richardson, and the Miami Herald would like nothing more than to turn this scandal into a sideshow about FPL or anything else they can seize on.
But they shouldn’t be allowed to turn the page so easily.
The redistricting process is one of the most sensitive and litigious issues that state lawmakers, their staffers, and yes, journalists, have to contend with. The 2010 redistricting process was so embroiled in controversy and partisan legal wrangling that it went on for more than half of the last decade before finally being resolved. Few issues are more contentious, sensitive and prone to legal scrutiny, and Mary Ellen Klas literally got caught trying to put her journalistic thumb on the scale.
Yet neither her boss, Monica Richardson nor the Miami Herald have given Klas so much as a corrective slap on the wrist. Instead, they offer journalistic platitudes and then play the victim:
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.
Blah, blah, blah. Not a single word of Richardson’s worthless statement offered an explanation for how Klas’s words can be construed as anything other than trying to bolster the chances of expected legal cases on behalf of left-leaning outside groups. Instead, the underlying facts were ignored, fingers pointed elsewhere, and the issue dodged. And that is especially rich because that’s exactly the kind of behavior the hypocritical Klas complains about incessantly from those she claims to cover objectively.