Heard declares her innocence in public records case
County Commissioner Sarah Heard is not happy with the news reports about Lake Point’s public records lawsuit against Martin County. Six times during the April 10 County Commission meeting she reminded commissioners – as well as the MCTV audience who was watching – that no commissioners were a “named party” in the Lake Point complaint.
The question is this: Does not being a named party make her innocent?
The county lost the public records lawsuit and was ordered by the court to pay Lake Point’s attorney fees and costs in the company’s attempts to retrieve both private and public correspondence about Lake Point between commissioners and former commissioner Maggy Hurchalla.
The amount awarded to Lake Point thus far is nearly $372,000, in addition to the $400,000 already paid by the county for commissioners’ private attorney fees. We suspect the total will top $1 million in attorney fees and costs just for the public records complaint, which Commissioner Ed Ciampi called “an ice cube,” as compared to the “iceberg” still to be dealt with after this summer’s Lake Point trial.
In the main case, which likely will begin in June, Lake Point contends that the county violated its agreements with Lake Point, a designated Northern Everglades Restoration Project and rock mine near Indiantown.
They also claim that Hurchalla’s private emails with commissioners is evidence in that lawsuit and have been the subject of Lake Point’s public records’ requests for more than four years. Heard blamed county staff for “mishandling” Lake Point’s public records requests, and demanded that the county prepare a press release so that residents will know that no commissioners were named parties.
“There is no guilt,” she said. “I have done nothing wrong.”
Frankly, we are astonished at her claim. As a county commissioner, she essentially IS the county because of the power bestowed to her, but let’s look a little closer at the actual court record:
Heard, along with Commissioners Ed Fielding and Anne Scott, were named specifically in Count VII in two amended complaints filed by Lake Point in February and November 2014 that charged violations of public records laws, although they were not named as parties in the original Lake Point lawsuit filed in February 2013.
Stuart Attorney Howard Googe, the arbitrator appointed by Judge William Roby, studied court documents, trial and deposition transcripts, and interviewed witnesses on Feb. 7 and 8 in a public setting. He reported that “experts found no evidence of third-party hacking that would cause data loss,” as Heard had claimed was the reason she could not comply with Lake Point’s public records request for emails from her private Yahoo! account.
Googe found Heard’s explanation for the loss of eight years’ of data “to be suspicious, bizarre and less than credible.”
He also found that Heard had “failed to take responsible action to timely preserve and recover public records” that had mysteriously disappeared from her private email account. Florida law demands that public records be preserved and protected.
Three emails about the Lake Point project forwarded from Heard’s private email account to county staff on Dec. 27, 2012, also raised questions. With the subject line “Water” and questioning the Lake Point project, the emails were purportedly authored by Heard; however, she could not explain why she “hit the forward button” when Heard sent them, leaving the telltale “FW:” notation in the subject line.
Googe determined that those three emails more likely were authored by Maggy Hurchalla, instead of Heard, because of their similarity to emails sent from Hurchalla to Heard three months earlier.
As a result, Googe ruled that Heard had “manipulated and/or altered” the emails in violation of public records laws.
Googe ordered, and Judge Roby affirmed in his final judgment this month, that Lake Point is entitled to receive all public records it has requested, including whatever records can still be retrieved regarding Lake Point from Heard’s private Yahoo! account, as well as the three original emails authored by Hurchalla in their native format that Heard forwarded to county staff on Dec. 27, 2012.
Roby also declared that Lake Point is entitled to any additional attorney fees and costs related to obtaining these public records after Feb. 9 when arbitration ended.
Commission Chair Doug Smith rejected Heard’s premise that the fault for the judgment against the county lay with the county staff, because they simply follow directives from the commission board.
“If you don’t own your job up here,” Smith told Heard, “and you try to shift the responsibility to someone else, that’s wrong.”
We agree, but that’s not all that’s wrong with Sarah Heard’s record as an elected official.