Much of Lake Point’s case against Martin County over the past three years has been tangled in a quagmire of public records and evidence disputes, which suddenly unraveled last week with a stunning, unexpected discovery.
Martin County’s IT Department uncovered several previously unreported emails from an undisclosed private email account belonging to Martin County Commissioner Anne Scott, according to documents filed March 18 in 19th District Court in Martin County.
“One week ago, Martin County for the first time produced e-mails between Commissioner Anne C. Scott and Maggy Hurchalla that for the previous two years the County and Commissioner Scott have claimed did not exist,” according to the motion filed by Lake Point. “The e-mails are also directly relevant, and tend to prove, the breach of contract and tortuous interference claims Lake Point has asserted against Martin County and Ms. Hurchalla.”
Martin County’s latest IT search was the result of a follow-up request in late February by Lake Point asking the county to again check for private email correspondence regarding Lake Point between Maggy Hurchalla and county commissioners.
Lake Point asserts in court testimony that Hurchalla “deceitfully and surreptitiously” through secret emails and private meetings persuaded Martin County and South Florida Water Management District officials to end agreements with Lake Point for a water restoration project on Lake Point property near Indiantown, thus the cause behind their public records requests of Martin County. A previous judge in the case, James McCann, called Hurchalla’s emails “highly relevant” to Lake Point’s case.
Hurchalla’s attorney, Virginia Sherlock, argued in court that Hurchalla was exercising her right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution, calling the legal charges a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) against Hurchalla and asked that the charges be dismissed. Three judges denied her motion for dismissal all three times she filed it, according to court records.
Martin County assured Lake Point that the company had already received all relevant public records, including all emails, nonetheless agreed to have its IT department conduct a follow-up search. Martin County attorneys turned over copies in early March of the newly discovered Hurchalla emails to Scott that seemed to provide instructions to the commissioner in 2012 as to how to end the county’s agreement with Lake Point, which was unanimously approved in 2008.
Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb filed a motion within days of receiving the new evidence asking that District Court Judge Shields McManus grant a new trial to address their public records complaints and award attorney fees, costs and levy sanctions against Martin County.
Lake Point’s public records complaint alleges that the county violated state law that requires county governments to “control, preserve and protect” all public records by failing to respond fully to Lake Point’s requests in a timely manner, alleging also that an email from Commissioner Ed Fielding had been altered, and that public records previously housed in Commissioner Sarah Heard’s private Yahoo email account had not been recovered from Yahoo after she reported her email had been “hacked.”
In their original public records complaint, Lake Point also requested notes that Heard had used during a February 2013 county commission meeting, filing the public records request with the county prior to the end of the same meeting. Martin County asserts that personal notes are not public records; however, Lake Point counters that state law specifies that the notes should have been preserved until a judge could have made that determination.
Loeb also asked the 4th District Court of Appeals last week to relinquish their current review of the lower court’s previous order of Sept. 3, 2015, concluding that Martin County had not violated public records laws, in order to pursue a new trial on the public records complaints.
In his previous verdict, McManus had said no violations had occurred because the county had extended “all reasonable efforts” to provide the public record of personal notes and email correspondence that still existed between all commissioners and Hurchalla.
Martin County’s then-outside counsel, John Fumero of Boca Raton, had assured McManus in court testimony that all correspondence between all five county commissioners and Hurchalla, on both public and private email accounts and all electronic devices, had been provided in response to Lake Point’s requests that began in February 2013.
Over the next 12 months, some emails and the private email accounts of some commissioners were provided to Lake Point, but none from Scott, who also had not revealed that she held more than one private email account, according to court records.
In a county commission meeting in February 2013, Scott had called for the immediate shut down of the Lake Point operation on the grounds that it was violating its development order. Lake Point, which had obtained state rock mining permits and had been designated as an Everglades restoration project, claimed it was now exempt from county development rules.
That case, which claims a breach of contract by Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District, as well as claiming that Hurchalla had convinced Martin County commissioners and SFWMD officials to end their agreements with Lake Point, is set to go to trial in September 2016.
The county commission approved an $800,000 transfer of funds this month from reserves to the County Attorney’s Office t to cover the anticipated legal costs this year in the Lake Point case that thus far has cost more than $500,000 in outside attorney fees.