Sierra Club, ACLU rally forces to fight $4.4 million verdict awarded to billionaire

By Lisa Broadt, Treasure Coast Newspapers

Sept. 28, 2018

MARTIN COUNTY — A faction of powerful organizations, as well as two former U.S. deputy attorneys general, are rallying behind Maggy Hurchalla, the 77-year-old environmental activist who, they say, is the victim of an assault on her First Amendment rights.

The coalition — ranging from the Sierra Club to the American Civil Liberties Union to the First Amendment Foundation — has been vocal in its support for Hurchalla, sister of the late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. And on Sept. 21, the group jumped deep into the legal fray, filing a brief in the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal supporting Hurchalla’s right to criticize the government.

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said Hurchalla’s case impacts every person who wants to hold elected officials accountable. The appeal in her case is critically important, Petersen said.

“If Maggy wins — and I think she will — people and companies … will think twice about threatening those of us who don’t agree with them,” Petersen said. “They need to know they can’t stop us simply through intimidation or the threat of a lawsuit.”

Hurchalla’s battle dates to 2013, when Lake Point Restoration sued the former county commissioner for interfering with a contract it had with Martin County government. The rock-mining company owned by Miami billionaire George Lindemann Jr. based its case largely on emails Hurchalla sent to elected officials.

Hurchalla warned officials that the rock quarry would destroy wetlands, and urged them to break the contract. In February, after five years and some 75,000 pages of court filings, a Martin County Circuit Court jury found Hurchalla liable of contract interference. The jury ordered Hurchalla to pay Lake Point $4.4 million.

Hurchalla is appealing the verdict. Her legal team includes former U.S. Deputy Attorneys General David W. Ogden and Jamie S. Gorelick. In joining the case, the organizations supporting Hurchalla told the appeals court that Hurchalla did not receive a fair trial.

The trial court should have required Lake Point’s attorneys to prove Hurchalla acted with “ill will, hostility and (the) evil intention to defame and injure” their client, attorneys said in the filing. Instead, the six-person jury was instructed to find in favor of Lake Point if they believed Hurchalla intentionally lied to commissioners — no matter her motivation with regard to Lake Point. The friend-of-the-court-brief represents the arguments of eight organizations — the ACLU, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, the First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Press Association, the Florida Society of News Editors, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club — as well as Riviera Beach activist Fane Lozman.

Meanwhile, Lake Point has made it clear it’s serious about collecting the $4.4 million, and has doggedly investigated Hurchalla’s bank accounts and searched for a copy of her will. In July, Lake Point seized Hurchalla’s 2004 Toyota and two kayaks.

Petersen on Thursday described the company’s actions as “harassment,” but noted Hurchalla has the rare fortitude to continue fighting. Hurchalla admits the case has impacted her life — though not in the way Lake Point intends, she said.

“I’d rather be kayaking,” Hurchalla said Tuesday, “but how many 77-year-old ladies get to defend the First Amendment? I think it’s an honor.”

The support she’s received feels “absolutely wonderful,” Hurchalla said. “This morning I found a kayak in my front yard with a note that said ‘To Maggy, from the people who love you,” Hurchalla said. “The point of a (lawsuit like Lake Point’s) is to make the victim miserable and to scare other people. So far, they have not made me miserable and they certainly don’t seem to have scared people.”

Editor’s note: Treasure Coast Newspapers is a member of the Florida Society of News Editors, and Cindy McCurry-Ross — editor of the News-Press in Fort Myers, also a Gannett Co. newspaper — is the current president.

[Full Verision]

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