Politics & Government

Who leaked the Hofeller files? NC gerrymandering battle spawns new court case

After Republican operative Thomas Hofeller died in Raleigh last year, his secret personal files made their way into the national media. They showed the extent of his involvement in gerrymandering North Carolina and other states, as well as in the Trump administration’s efforts to add a controversial question about citizenship to the U.S. Census.

Now, the question over how his files ended up in such public view — introduced as evidence in court, and splashed across the pages of national publications — is subject to new courtroom oversight in North Carolina.

Hofeller’s company asked this month for an investigation of the latest leaks from the files, and on Monday judges laid out the process for how the courts will deal with the request.

Their order also included an acknowledgment that the national Republican Party is asking for certain files of Hofeller’s to be kept out of the public eye.

Earlier this summer, a panel of judges in Raleigh threw out the maps used to elect members of the state legislature, ruling many of them unconstitutional due to the way they were drawn for Republican partisan advantage.

Hofeller’s files were used during the trial as evidence that he had secretly drawn the state’s maps without following the rules the legislature claimed he was bound by — and that he had potentially used improper racial data, too. The maps in question were drawn to replace previous maps, also drawn by Hofeller, that had been struck down as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders by a different court.

There was more in Hofeller’s files, showing how he was also involved in North Carolina’s 2013 voter ID law, which was similarly ruled unconstitutional for violating minorities’ rights, as well as the Census citizenship question controversy.

None of that came out in this summer’s gerrymandering trial, however, because the judges said that any of the Hofeller files not being used as evidence should be kept confidential. That’s because there’s a separate legal battle brewing over who really owns the files — Hofeller’s company, or his clients, or his daughter, who was the one who gave them to Common Cause, the national anti-gerrymandering group that was part of the lawsuit against North Carolina’s maps.

All the anecdotes about other work Hofeller had done came out in articles published by the national media, particularly a New York Times article about the Census controversy and a New Yorker article that dug into more granular detail.

It was that New Yorker article, published earlier this month, that gave raise to the newest legal developments here in North Carolina.

David Daley, the author of books on voting rights, published an article in the New Yorker on Sept. 6 titled “The Secret Files of the Master of Modern Republican Gerrymandering.”

Three days later, Hofeller’s company Geographic Strategies filed a request with the judges in the North Carolina redistricting case — where they’re also fighting over ownership of the files — asking for a full investigation into how Daley got the files.

Monday’s court order will allow that investigation to potentially go forward, not under the purview of the three-judge panel but rather overseen by Wake County Superior Court Judge Vincent Rozier. The order says Geographic Strategies “requested an order from the Court that all copies of the Hofeller files be destroyed,” except those already used as evidence in trial.

They also asked the court to make Common Cause and its attorneys prove they weren’t the ones who leaked the files. Geographic Strategies representatives said Common Cause told them that Hofeller’s estranged daughter, Stephanie Hofeller, is the one who gave the files to Daley, according to the court order.

The company asked that Stephanie Hofeller and her lawyer be held in contempt of court, and asked for the New Yorker to be banned from publishing anything else about the Hofeller files until a hearing takes place, according to the court order.

That last part, banning the publication of information, is known as “prior restraint” and is often considered a First Amendment violation.

Those matters are all still under consideration by the court.

Monday’s court order also revealed the national Republican Party is now getting involved.

Campaign finance reports show that the Republican National Committee had been paying Hofeller’s company more than $22,000 a month before his death. And Monday’s court filing says that last month, the RNC asked the court “to protect certain files” from being seen by the public. North Carolina Republican lawmakers have also asked Common Cause to destroy files of Hofeller’s it had come to possess.

For more state government news, listen to Domecast, the politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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