Documents were deleted from state redistricting computers last year even after a lawyer for the Legislature told lawmakers’ aides to preserve all records on the computers, according to documents filed Wednesday in federal court. Nine hard drives were recently given to groups suing the state because of questions about whether legislators and their attorneys had turned over all the documents they had been ordered to provide. One of the nine hard drives was unreadable and the outside of it was dented and scratched, which suggested its metal housing had been removed, according to affidavits in the case. In addition, some of the hard drives had a program installed on them that could remove electronic data and hide the fact that files had been deleted, according to the filing. So far, however, a computer expert has not been able to determine if the program was actually used. A lawyer representing the law firm that helped lawmakers with redistricting called the new allegations premature and unproven. Left unanswered so far is who was responsible for the deletion of any documents. The technician reviewing the computers hopes to recover at least some documents.
The filings are the latest sign of legal difficulties for Republicans who control the Legislature and their backers. It raises the possibility officials or their lawyers could face sanctions from the panel of three federal judges or the state Office of Lawyer Regulation.
The case holds high stakes for Republican lawmakers and Michael Best & Friedrich, the firm they hired help draw the new lines. The court has been critical of the way the firm handled the case, at one point ordering lawyers there to pay about $17,500 because they had filed frivolous motions in attempts to block the release of documents.
Every 10 years, states must draw new maps for legislative and congressional districts to account for population changes. Republicans controlled all of Wisconsin’s government in 2011, and they used their power to draw lines that were greatly beneficial to their party.
A group of Democrats and the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera sued, and the panel of federal judges ruled last year that two Assembly maps on Milwaukee’s south side violated the voting rights of Latinos. The court put in place new maps for those districts but not others, meaning the Republican-friendly maps were largely preserved.
But after the ruling, the plaintiffs identified documents – 55 so far – that should have been turned over to them but never were. Last month the court ordered the state to turn over the computers so the plaintiffs could forensically examine them because the judges found “some form of ‘fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct’ likely occurred.”