Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard was found not guilty last week of public records violations stemming from a years-long battle with mining company Lake Point Restoration.
A jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes before delivering the not guilty verdict on two first-degree criminal misdemeanors including failure of a public official to permit inspection and copying of public records, and failure to maintain records.
"We're just very happy for Commissioner Heard," said Jordan Wagner, who represented Heard during the five-day trial with attorney Barbara Kibbey Wagner. "She had her name dragged through the mud unnecessarily and she's never done anything wrong."
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The charges against Heard were brought after the powerful Lake Point Restoration sued Martin County in 2014 for public records violations. After years in court and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, Lake Point won the case in February 2017.
Nine months later, Martin County settled a lawsuit with Lake Point, agreeing to pay $12 million for 400-acres 30 miles southwest of Stuart and write a letter apologizing for "unnecessarily tarnishing" the company's reputation.
Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler said the jury didn't get to hear about the 2017 records case Lake Point won, the $12 million settlement or the apology. He emphasized the charges were filed against Heard after a grand jury indictment.
"A lot of the information the jury heard was in a vacuum," Butler said. "They didn't hear some of the most compelling evidence and that's that Martin County had already admitted commissioners had violated the public records laws."
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Lake Point, which is co-owned by former Wellington resident George Lindemann Jr., had a deal with Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District to mine land in western Martin County and donate the holes after 20 years for water storage.
But concerns were raised by Maggy Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner, about whether Lake Point was destroying wetlands. Hurchalla emailed commissioners to their private and public email accounts. Hurchalla, sister to late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, was hit with a $4.4 million judgment last year after Lake Point sued her for interfering with its agreement with Martin County. Hurchalla appealed the decision, which is is being reviewed by the 4th District Court of Appeal.
When Lake Point requested Heard's emails, the 64-year-old said her private Yahoo account had been hacked and she couldn't produce all of them.
Wagner said after 15,000 pages of documents presented in the trial and "many depositions" it came down to just five emails that were missing.
"She really tried to do what she could to recover the emails, which shows the good faith effort she was making all along," Wagner said. "There was no evidence of criminal intent."
The not-guilty verdict means Wagner can ask the state to pay for his firm's legal fees.
Former Martin County commissioners Ed Fielding and Anne Scott face similar charges as Heard. Fielding is scheduled to go to trial Aug. 5. Scott's trial is scheduled for July 22.