Verdict in first public records trial expected today
Verdict in first public records trial expected today
By Mike Mason
Special to Martin County Currents
Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard had her day in court Thursday to answer charges that she allegedly violated public records laws in 2013. She, instead, let a string of others speak for her.
Three people testified for Heard late Wednesday, and nine more of the remaining list of 67 witnesses testified Thursday.
After making Heard, 64, say aloud that she was aware she had the right to testify on her own behalf, but chose not to, Senior Judge J. David Langford, a retired circuit judge from Highlands County, sent the jury home about an hour early yesterday.
Attorneys for both sides will deliver their closing arguments Friday morning, and the jury of four women and two men will likely begin their deliberations over lunch. Although a particularly young group of jurors, many of whom have never voted in an election, they all have taken notes throughout trial testimony, did not doze during the hours-long, videotaped Heard depositions, and read a file of evidentiary documents as prosecutors dealt with the uncooperating video equipment.
Prosecutors say Heard failed to preserve or produce five particular emails, which were sent by Heard to county staff members. Digital data forensics expert John Jorgensen testified Wednesday that the emails had characteristics in the body and subtext internet routing information that indicated they originally came from Hurchalla.
One of the emails had added an “e” to the end of Lake Point, as did an earlier Hurchalla email to Heard, a characteristic that Jorgensen attributed to Hurchalla. Under cross-examination, however, Jorgensen was less conclusive that the origin was indisputably Hurchalla’s computer, although his opinion that Hurchalla authored the emails had not swayed.
Three of the emails central to this case, all of which had long lists of questions about Lake Point, had been forwarded prior to Heard sending them from her private email account to the county administrator within around two to three minutes of each other on Dec. 27, 2012, in reverse numerical order. Heard denied in her deposition testimony that anyone else had authored those emails originally.
In court testimony yesterday, several emails to the county also had the characteristic “e” after Lake Point, but they had been sent to County Administrator Taryn Kryzda by former county commissioner Donna Melzer, a friend of both Heard and Hurchalla, all of whom are members of the Martin County Conservation Alliance.
Though Jordan and Barbara Kibbey Wagner, Heard’s husband-and-wife defense team, will detail their defense theory in their closing argument, the general theme that ran through testimony of witnesses Thursday was that Heard was an honest, upright person who has never shown interest in hiding things, as she is accused of doing with the five emails that are central to these misdemeanor charges.
HEARD IS HONEST, AIDE SAYS
Jan Henslee, Heard’s aide in county government from 2003 to 2016, said when there was a public records request that she needed to search Heard’s private email to fulfill, Heard always gave her the password to her account, “but I wouldn’t keep it.”
The county has since changed its record policy in 2017 and hired a public records liaison, but Henslee said that if she didn’t quickly fulfill a records request “there’d be a half-dozen people at my desk to tell me about it.”
She could not recall the first public records request for all correspondence regarding the Lake Point project, which was submitted by current Commissioner Stacey Hetherington and then-Lake Point consultant, on Jan. 15, 2013. The acting county attorney sent the request to all five commissioners and others, according to trial testimony.
Henslee added, “If there was a public records request, I answered it. There’s no question in my mind.”
But Henslee also conceded that during the time Lake Point representatives were requesting records of Heard’s emails related to Lake Point, she was dealing with the severe illness and impending death of her mother.
The friends who testified said their received “Trojan horse,” or phishing emails from Heard’s private email address on Jan. 31, 2013, and in July 2013 that indicated her Yahoo! email account had been hacked.
Heard testified in her depositions shown to the jury that Jan. 31, 2013, also was the day that she lost eight years’ worth of saved emails and her contacts list as a result of a hacking of her Yahoo! account. Jorgensen had testified a day earlier that hackers typically do not announce their presence by deleting emails or contact lists
Jorgensen was originally hired by Lake Point at a cost of “around $30,000” to research the source of emails to and from Heard for Lake Point’s civil suit. He had charged the state around $22,000 thus far for his services, he testified.
JUDGE IS ASKED FOR IMMEDIATE VERDICT
In one of the counts of the state’s indictment against Heard, only the specific, forwarded emails from Hurchalla to Heard and two others were listed as evidence of public records violations. Since a question arose during testimony as to whether Hurchalla actually authored those emails, Heard’s defense attorneys asked the judge after resting their case to render an immediate verdict of not guilty.
The other count against Heard was for failing to maintain her public records from September 2012 through Feb. 7, 2013, the date that Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb submitted his first public records request.
Florida’s public record law allows public officials to use their private email accounts for public business, but they are required to preserve those emails and make them available for inspection upon request.
Heard faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted, and perhaps more importantly could be removed from her $64,376-a-year post, according to state law. She was indicted in January 2018 along with now-former Commissioners Anne Scott, who was defeated in a 2016 re-election bid, and Ed Fielding, who did not seek re-election last year.
Like Heard, Scott and Fielding have pleaded not guilty.
Heard won a fifth term representing the county’s 4th District last August despite having been indicted. Scott’s trial is tentatively set for July 22. Fielding, who has been in court all week intently watching Heard’s trial, has his trial set for August 5.
When the trial reconvenes Friday at 9 a.m., the judge will render his decision, followed by closing arguments. The jury’s verdict is expected later in the day.