Public records case gets State Attorney’s scrutiny

Grand jury now looking at Lake Point’s public records case

The State Attorney’s office has apparently launched a criminal investigation into the Lake Point public records case in Martin County.

The county was served a search warrant Sept. 20 by the state attorney’s office to obtain a copy of the emails retrieved during a court-ordered search Sept. 15 of Commissioner Sarah Heard’s now-unlocked, private Yahoo! account, according to court records.

The investigation and grand jury probe was revealed during a court hearing Sept. 27 in the Lake Point case to consider Martin County’s request to postpone its main breach-of-contract trial set for Oct. 16 – the same day the state attorney’s office will present evidence to the Grand Jury regarding the public records case, according to statements made in open court.

The public records case was separated from the main Lake Point case in 2015.

Presiding judge William Roby said that he had been provided 600 “responsive” documents from the forensics search of Heard’s private email account, although he’d been able to “get through” only about 200 of them to determine their relevancy to Lake Point’s 2013 public records request.

A copy of all 600 emails also was provided to the state attorney’s office as a result of the search warrant issued to the county’s forensic IT consultant who conducted the search, according to court records.

Whatever emails Roby determines are relevant to the Lake Point case will be provided to Martin County, which in turn will provide copies to Lake Point and to Heard’s attorney, Robert Critton.

Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb also disclosed to the court that he had been subpoenaed by the state attorney to testify before the grand jury, which will determine if sufficient evidence exists to issue an arrest warrant in the case.

State Sunshine law dictates that all public records must be preserved and protected, and any deliberate alteration or destruction of records could result in criminal charges.

The county has been ordered to pay Lake Point more than $501,000 thus far for their attorney fees and costs as a result of the court’s ruling that the county had exhibited a “pattern and practice” of violating public records laws.

Lake Point, a water restoration project and rock mine near Indiantown, had asked for all correspondence on private email accounts between former commissioner Maggy Hurchalla and Martin County commissioners in February 2013, which they consider relevant evidence in its tortious interference claim against Hurchalla.

Heard, however, said she was unable to comply fully because her personal computer and private email account had been “hacked” a few weeks previously, destroying eight years’ of public records.

Nearly four years later, Circuit Court Judge William Roby issued a subpoena to Yahoo! in an attempt to retrieve whatever emails were still intact on Heard’s account to fulfill Lake Point’s public records request.

Roby appeared frustrated that the Lake Point case had been ongoing for more than four years without resolution, telling the attorneys during Wednesday’s court hearing that if he granted a continuance, it would likely drag the case on another six months to a year longer due to his own crowded court calendar.

He is expected to issue a ruling on the continuance this week.

Both Loeb and Martin County’s outside counsel, Edward de la Parte of Tampa, assured the court that the case likely would require only two weeks’ time, instead of the three weeks now allotted, since the South Florida Water Management District had settled with Lake Point in August – not with cash, but with an all new, 50-year contract.

The recently announced SFWMD settlement was the basis of Martin County’s request for a continuance, claiming that the water district’s new contract with Lake Point “changes the landscape”, affecting all aspects of the case, including Lake Point’s most recent damages claim of $22 million.

Loeb, who argued that the 2017 contract had no relevance to the county’s alleged contract breaches in 2013, urged the judge to reserve his ruling at least a day or two, as Lake Point and Martin County are currently engaged in settlement talks, adding that “the pitter patter of jury feet” could spur all sides to work harder to reach an agreement.

Lake Point’s breach of contract claims will be a bench trial, decided only by Roby. Both Lake Point and Hurchalla have asked for a jury trial in her case; however, both cases will be tried simultaneously.

An additional $760,000 was allocated to the county attorney’s office to cover the cost of additional outside attorney fees through the Oct. 16 trial during Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The office also requested an additional $350,000 for outside attorney fees to defend commissioners in the public records case, although the public records lawsuit by Lake Point was settled in Lake Point’s favor in February.

The new allocation will bring the total in outside attorney fees and costs to more than $5 million.

Commissioners Ed Ciampi and Doug Smith cast dissenting votes on the allocation of funds for additional legal fees, with Smith stating, “This is a case that should not have been in the first place … and I just believe we are heading in the wrong direction on this.”

Barbara Clowdus