Jurors hear from Commissioner Sarah Heard
By Mike Mason
Special to Martin County Currents
Jurors hear from Commissioner Sarah Heard
Although the jury had been prepped in advance to expect Commissioner Sarah Heard to plead the Fifth Amendment instead of taking the stand, the county commissioner testified before the Martin County Circuit Court jury for more than two hours Tuesday afternoon – under oath in a videotaped deposition.
Heard and former commissioners Ed Fielding and Anne Scott were indicted last year for allegedly violating public records laws. Heard is the first of the three to go on trial, and faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.
She also could be removed from her $64,376-a-year post, according to state law.
The full deposition had never previously been viewed by the public; only snippets were used during Lake Point’s civil lawsuit against environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla two years ago for interfering in Lake Point’s contracts. The court’s $4.4 million ruling against Hurchalla for damages was appealed.
Under questioning by attorneys in the video, Heard mostly responded by saying she didn’t remember the content of certain meetings or details.
Earlier in the day, during trial court testimony, Acting County Attorney Krista Storey explained to jurors that a public record is any form of communication, including electronic, about public business, even if on private computers. She also verified that Heard completed a state-required course on Florida’s Sunshine Law, including public records, in 2003.
Florida law requires that all public records must be protected, preserved and available to the public on demand.
Also testifying Tuesday was current Martin County Commissioner Stacey Hetherington, who had been contracted by Lake Point around 2007 to assist the company in its governmental relations as it purchased a housing development adjacent to Lake Okeechobee in western Martin County with the intention of turning it into a public-private water restoration project, mining rock to support the cost of infrastructure, then donating the land to the state.
In her then-role as a community affairs and government liaison, she testified that she submitted a public records request on Jan. 15, 2013, to Martin County Acting Attorney Krista Storey for all correspondence from all employees and departments regarding the Lake Point project “to gather information as to the county’s change in attitude about Lake Point,” she said, which had operated in the county without issue for five years.
Neither Heard nor her aide responded to Hetherington’s request, which Heard’s attorney, Barbara Kibbey Wagner, suggested might be due to the fact that Heard was in France and her aide was dealing with personal issues. Wagner also drilled Hetherington regarding her relationship with Lake Point.
“I was doing my job,” Hetherington responded, revealing that she had submitted the request on her own volition, not at Lake Point’s direction, and that she had lost her job after Lake Point filed its lawsuit in February 2013.
LAKE POINT ATTORNEY TESTIFIES
At one point during contentious exchanges about retrieving the public records from Heard’s private email account, Ethan Loeb, a partner in a Tampa law firm representing Lake Point, told jurors that Heard had tried to assert that she held “executive privilege,” akin to what the U.S. president has.
Loeb testified that he had attended a Martin County Commission meeting in February 2013 to observe the commission in discussions about Lake Point, after which he submitted his own public records request. Heard responded to that request with 120 pages of emails, he said, but he noticed Heard’s personal email address, [email protected] on the emails, as well as the county’s official address.
As a result, he submitted an additional public records request, specifically for all correspondence with Hurchalla regarding Lake Point using Heard’s private email address. Heard responded that she did not recall having any private email correspondence regarding Lake Point, which she referred to as Lakeside Ranches, but regardless, her email account had been hacked and all her emails and contacts for the previous eight years had been deleted.
PUBLIC RECORDS, PUBLIC RECORDS, PUBLIC RECORDS
In her nine-minute opening statement Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Nita Denton told the jury of five women and two men, “The bottom line is this case is about public records, particularly four records.”
Denton said they would focus on four emails, referred to as Water, and Lake Point One, Lake Point Two and Lake Point Three, which had been preserved because they were sent to county employees on the county’s public website.
She told jurors that after the makeup of the county commission changed with the 2012 election, Hurchalla “started emailing her friends on the commission,” Heard, Fielding and Scott, to persuade them to void the Lake Point deal.
Fielding, whose trial is tentatively set for July, was in court Tuesday, carefully watching Heard’s trial and periodically taking notes.
Wagner, who with her husband, Jordan Wagner, also representing Heard, said her client lost her private emails when 3 billion Yahoo! email accounts were hacked in 2012.
Kibbey Wagner said in her 30-minute opening that Heard’s turn against Lake Point was because of an outcry by the public at the loss of “millions of acres of wetlands.”
Loeb was on the witness stand for more than half of Tuesday’s session, but spent most of that time silent as the jury was shown the 2-1/4-hour video of Heard’s first deposition in the case, made in December 2014.
After the video, Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler asked Loeb about the four emails, which he finally received from county administrators, he said, after Heard denied they existed, giving several reasons why she could not produce emails from her private Yahoo! account.
Loeb said he found those emails through a circuitous route after comparing a September 2012 email from Heard to three Martin County staff members. The questions were identical, including certain misspellings, to a previous email from Hurchalla to Heard.
Butler was only beginning to get into the meat of the case with Loeb and Heard’s emails when Senior Judge J. David Langford, who retired in 2013 as a circuit judge from Highlands County, called an end to the day and told the jury to return at 9 a.m. Wednesday.