Reporter’s story did no favors to Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman undermined the public’s trust of venerable news organizations with his May 12 article, “Only in Florida: Battle over water, free speech pits billionaire vs. activist.”

Instead of checking the facts found in court records and legal documents, he took the lies being told to him as truth — then repeated them as fact. He reinforced the political hooey being circulated in underground networks in Martin County by lending it the weight of the Tampa Bay Times.

Apparently, Pittman thought his sources were as credible as his newspaper had been. He made a fatal assumption.

Among Pittman’s sources were Janet Reno’s sister, Maggy Hurchalla; and another, Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard, an elected official charged with two criminal misdemeanors — which Pittman failed to mention — in addition to the civil infraction for public records violations that Pittman reported. She goes to trial in December.

The county has already been sanctioned civilly for Heard’s (and others’) alleged criminal actions to the tune of $502,000, which Pittman also did not report.

We know Pittman didn’t read the Lake Point Restoration plan, because the original agreement counters much of what both he and the experts he consulted claim. Had he, or his numerous experts, truly read the plan, his story would have been different.

The South Florida Water Management District was responsible for the operation and management of the 2008 Lake Point project, part of the St. Lucie Watershed Protection Program. Not Lake Point.

It was at the District’s “sole and absolute discretion” to move water out of the C-44 Canal (not Lake Okeechobee) to Lake Point’s property and to improve water quality flows from Lake Point’s property into the St. Lucie River estuary AND into the L-8 Canal to meet the region’s water needs.

The plan would follow state law. It was not illegal, as Pittman inferred.

Pittman completely missed the strategic location of that land. The C-44 Canal is north of the property. The L-8 Canal is south of the property. He missed the fact that the District had wanted the property but could not buy it. He missed the fact that control of the project was by the District, which would ultimately own the land — without spending one taxpayer dime.

He missed the fact that the District had the discretion, by state law, to approve the sale of water, if it is in the public interest by permit only. That’s a crucial fact.

Even when Lake Okeechobee is not discharging millions of gallons of water into the St. Lucie River, the watershed drains more than twice that amount into the C-44 Canal. That water goes out to sea.

Lake Point’s 2008 plan would divert some of that water onto its land and clean it with no taxpayer investment in the project.

If Lake Point had a buyer for the cleaned water — which never materialized — would that not be in the public’s best interest?

The plan was not, as Pittman wrote, to sell water that Lake Point “found” on its land. The water would come from the C-44. The plan would not “upend” state water policy.

The commission majority wanted to cancel the contract because Hurchalla said its wetlands were being destroyed and that Lake Point was selling Martin County water illegally. Those were the lies that Hurchalla told Commissioners Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott to repeat, all of which were later disproved in court.

They did what Hurchalla ordered. The county staff did what Hurchalla and her attorney, Virginia Sherlock, ordered. Sherlock even had her own desk in the county’s legal department. Hurchalla had total control, which has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

It had everything to do with the corruption that comes with absolute power.

Yes, the 2016 election shifted the power on the Martin County Commission. The people threw out former-judge Commissioner Anne Scott because she neglected to reveal that she had more than one private email account with private emails from Hurchalla telling her what to do.

Circuit Court Judge Shields McManus called her actions “unlawful.”

Pittman also was dead wrong about the new commissioner. The campaign that changed the dynamics of the 2016 commission was not funded by Lake Point contributions. That was another lie, reported as fact.

Hurchalla’s claim that wetlands were being destroyed at Lake Point was refuted as far back as 2012 by Martin County Ecosystem Restoration Director Deb Drum who replied in a public email directly to Heard (who relayed it to Hurchalla) that “no wetlands were destroyed at Lake Point.” Pittman could have checked the record, but he did not.

We know Hurchalla’s legacy as an environmental icon is on the line as she faces the real prospect of losing all of her financial assets, because of a lie that she’s refused to retract, a lie that even her own expert’s testimony unexpectedly refuted in court.

Lake Point’s wetlands were restored, not destroyed.

Do Hurchalla’s assets truly consist only of “two kayaks and an aging Toyota”? Not according to court records, which reveal a Bank of America total of around $60,000, plus two safe deposit boxes. It also shows nearly $250,000 in a Merrill Lynch account of cash and investments, plus ownership of six parcels of land in Martin County. She has at least two other investment accounts, one at TDAmeriTrade and another at The GMS Group, plus three crowd-sourcing accounts, according to court records.

Despite the cash in her accounts, the county paid her court costs for more than three dozen evidentiary hearings and dozens of depositions, because she complained in court that she could not afford to pay the fees.

The county attorney said Martin County would pay them, which they did for four years, until he was asked by a new county commissioner to find another job. She is not a penniless environmentalist, as Pittman portrayed her.

A six-person jury looked at the evidence and found Hurchalla guilty of tortious interference with Lake Point’s contracts. They did not buy the argument that Hurchalla was merely exercising her First Amendment rights.

They found her liable for $4.3 million in damages to Lake Point’s business. The first appeal has already been dismissed but will be refiled. Meanwhile, the interest on her debt to Lake Point will continue to grow at around $250,000 annually.

One fact that Pittman got right was that George Lindemann Jr. went to prison two decades ago for the act most people cannot imagine — having a non-performing race horse killed by a professional hit man.

Lindemann was the 24-year-old son of a multi-billionaire at the time with genuine potential as an Olympic equestrian. His had lived a life of privilege.

It was a convoluted tale, involving a girl and others, yet despite his family’s wealth, Lindemann took responsibility, repaid the insurance company and served more than a year in prison. We believe Pittman when he described Lindemann’s time in prison as “traumatizing.”

The experience also was transformational. Lindemann is now a patron of the arts in the Miami area and strengthened important environmental causes throughout the U.S., being named last year as Conservationist of the Year by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

He had given far more to the Florida Oceanographic Society in Martin County prior to the litigation than he ever had to any political campaign. He remains a major contributor to the Florida Audubon Society, the president of which is another Lake Point Restoration partner, Jud Laird.

Laird worked quietly alongside Eric Draper to get Amendment 1 passed two years ago and to get the SB 10 bill passed last year to build the EAA reservoir, in addition to all the other work by Audubon throughout the state.

The Lake Point Restoration project was one that could have been a win-win project for both private and public interests. All Hurchalla accomplished was to hurt a legitimate business, derail a good plan to benefit the St. Lucie River, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

We dare say that’s not the legacy she intended.