Judge grants new trial
Anne Scott’s secret email account prompts judge to grant new public records trial
When a judge leaves a courtroom with few words, a furrowed brow and no decision, as did District Court Judge Shields McManus on Wednesday, April 27, in Martin County, no one can predict how long the wait will be to get his answer.
The wait was short. It took less than 24 hours for the judge to deliberate, make a decision and write a four-page order overturning his previous judgment in the Lake Point public records case heard by McManus in August last year.
His final order had cleared Martin County, as well as Commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding, of Lake Point’s allegations of public records law violations, finding Lake Point ineligible to recover an award of attorney’s fees and costs.
“The newly discovered emails from a heretofore unrevealed private email account of Commissioner (Anne) Scott are direct evidence of an unlawful refusal to disclose public records,” McManus wrote in his order. “As such it will probably change the result if a new trial is granted.”
McManus granted Lake Point a new trial; however, first McManus will hear the county’s arguments against the judge’s order. No date has been set for that hearing.
The public records charges at issue became Amendment VII and VIII in Lake Point’s original filing against Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District on Feb. 5, 2013, over a contract dispute, and against former Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla for tortuous interference with those contracts.
Lake Point, a 1,005-acre rock mining and water restoration project near Indiantown, created a public-private partnership among Martin County and the SFWMD with plans to mine rock for 20 years, then turn over the property to the SFWMD to build a stormwater treatment facility.
Commissioner Anne Scott attempted to shut down the mining operation during the Feb. 5, 2013, county commission meeting for alleged violations of its development order (for an equestrian housing development), refusing to recognize Lake Point’s state mining and environmental permits.
Lake Point had intended to become a water project to convey excess, polluted water from the C-44 canal, across their property through lined limestone rockpits, dropping out phosphorous to acceptable levels, and into the L-8 canal adjacent to its southern border for further distribution in an arrangement with American Water, the largest water utility in the US.
Lake Point alleges that Hurchalla’s misrepresentations to commissioners and SFWMD officials about the project through private emails and meetings caused discontent among its public partners, resulting in a contract breach.
Martin County’s outside counsel, Edward de la Parte of Tampa, argued that only the three alleged violations of public records laws addressed in the judge’s final order of Sept. 3, 2015, and for which the only evidence had been presented by Lake Point during the bench trial last August comprised the sum of the court proceedings.
Since no evidence had been presented by Lake Point against Scott in that trial, de la Parte said during Wednesday’s hearing, the newly discovered emails in Scott’s private email account to and from Maggy Hurchalla had no bearing and could not possibly affect the outcome of the previous trial.
Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb reminded the judge that Lake Point had made direct public records requests on Feb. 7, 2013, from Commissioners Fielding, Heard and Scott for emails “between you and Maggy Hurchalla” regarding Lake Point; however, no emails were produced.
On Nov. 11, 2014, Lake Point filed an additional complaint requesting that the court require the county to comply with the public records requests, including all public records from county commissioners in their original format from both public and private email accounts, and award them attorney’s fees and costs.
After Lake Point filed its complaint, the county handed over an email from Maggy Hurchalla, signed “Deep Rockpit,” found on Fielding’s personal computer in his previously undisclosed private email account.
The judge allowed a forensic examination of Fielding’s computer, however, no “significant” emails were found.
Lake Point’s attempt to have a forensic examination of Scott’s computer was blocked, following Martin County’s outside attorney John Fumero’s repeated assertions that Lake Point had been provided all the public records that existed, and none existed for Scott.
The discovery of the new emails and Anne Scott’s previously undisclosed private email account was made by Martin County’s IT Department following a “follow-up” public records request by Lake Point in February for relevant emails from Anne Scott’s and John Haddox’s private accounts. Haddox had no Lake Point emails.
The county turned over five emails from Hurchalla to Scott from her previously undisclosed email account regarding Lake Point in March, after which Loeb requested a new trial.