By Gil Smart, Treasure Coast Newspapers
Jan. 10, 2019
Former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla might still be up a legal creek. But at least she’s got her kayaks.
On Jan. 4, the Martin County Sheriff’s Office returned two kayaks and a 2004 Toyota it had seized from Hurchalla in July, after she’d lost a landmark lawsuit to Lake Point developer George Lindemann Jr. and was ordered to cough up $4.4 million.
Hurchalla and her husband didn’t exactly have that much sitting around. The car (with some 207,000 miles on the odometer) and kayaks certainly weren’t worth much, but were seized as part of the settlement. Hurchalla, a Martin County environmental icon and sister of the late, Clinton-era U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, said Lake Point was trying to “destroy” her.
By November, though, Lake Point decided it didn’t really want the car and boats. “It didn’t make any sense to keep these items,” said Lake Point spokesperson Honey Rand. And while Lake Point could have donated them to charity, “the decision was made to give the kayaks and the car back in the Christmas spirit,” Rand said.
But while Hurchalla is happy to have the items back, none of this indicates any kind of truce. Hurchalla said Lake Point isn’t giving back the $60,000 it seized from her bank accounts; it hasn’t unfrozen her safe deposit boxes. And Round 2 of this legal rumble should soon begin. Hurchalla has appealed the case and enlisted an army of free speech advocates and environmentalists to back her up.
The coalition ranges from the Sierra Club to the American Civil Liberties Union to the First Amendment Foundation and Florida Society of News Editors. These backers call the case against Hurchalla a classic “SLAPP” suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), designed to silence critics of deep-pocketed corporate interests.
“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,” First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen told TCPalm last year. “They need to know they can’t stop us simply through intimidation or the threat of a lawsuit.”
Lake Point sees things very differently.
Lake Point claims Hurchalla interfered with its contract with Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District by emailing commissioners; Hurchalla claims she was a private citizen exercising free speech.
Rand said the case has nothing to do with free speech, nothing to do with Hurchalla’s behind-the-scenes attempts to get Martin County commissioners to scotch the Lake Point project. “It was about lying,” Rand said. Hurchalla, said Rand, continually insisted “that Lake Point had destroyed wetlands. They did not.”
“The First Amendment protects free speech,” Rand said, “but it does not protect you when you lie.”
We’ll see what the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal has to say about that.
Here’s your condensed backstory: In 2008 Lindemann — heir to a cellphone and cable TV fortune — and a group of investors purchased some 2,200 acres near Lake Okeechobee, with an eye on mining rock, then using the pits to store water when the lake got too full.
Then Lake Point got the idea to sell the water. That didn’t sit well with either the South Florida Water Management District or the Martin County Commission, both of which had signed off on the rock mining project. Hurchalla, then a private citizen (she was a commissioner from 1974-1994), didn’t like it, either. She urged county commissioners to kill the deal — sometimes, via behind-the-scenes emails to their private accounts.
Commissioners followed her suggestions and the deal fell apart. Lake Point sued Hurchalla, the water management district and Martin County; three county commissioners (Sarah Heard, who is still on the board, and former commissioners Anne Scott and Ed Fielding) were later charged with public records violations in relation to the case. Heard faces trial March 4; Scott and Fielding go to trial April 8.
The county and the water management district settled with Lake Point, but Hurchalla opted to fight. She lost that battle last February, when a Martin County jury ordered her to pay Lake Point $4,391,708. Hurchalla vowed to fight on.
And here we are.
Her legal team now includes two former Assistant U.S. Attorneys General, David W. Ogden and Jamie S. Gorelick. They and her other lawyers argue this is “a textbook example of a ‘SLAPP’ suit,” and that the judge in the case, William Roby, erred in his instructions to the jury.
Ultimately, however, the case could come down to a simple yet very complicated question: What’s a wetland?
Hurchalla and her supporters say she never lied about wetlands. The experts she brought in testified wetlands on the site had disappeared. Lake Point says that’s false. So who’s right? Could both be right?
In an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief (http://www.defendmaggy.com/amicus-final), a group of Hurchalla supporters including Bullsugar and the Florida Wildlife Foundation argue that “Whether lands are ‘wetlands’ is frequently a matter of scientific uncertainty and subject to debate. … “Good faith uncertainty and dispute are inherent to the nature of scientific ‘facts,’ ” the brief argues; as such, any statements by Hurchalla “that have any colorable basis in valid scientific information or opinion are protected First Amendment speech.”
Bottom line, all this — Hurchalla’s appeal, the public records trials of the current and former county commissioners — will be among the most closely watched legal events of the year in Florida. The implications are huge. So pass the popcorn. This ought to be interesting.
Gil Smart is a TCPalm columnist and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 772-223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart