A 77-year-old South Florida environmentalist speaks out and gets sued, harrassed. She won’t back down.

Florida Phoenix, Diane Roberts, August 6, 2018
Photo: Maggy Hurchalla protesting water pollution at the Capitol (by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)
I

n Martin County, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. You may express your opinion–about a dodgy water deal, say, or damage to certain wetlands–but if you challenge the wrong billionaire, if you urge your elected representatives to take action thwarting the plans of said billionaire, you may find yourself hauled into court, financially imperiled, and told that your free speech rights are not what you thought they were, Constitution be damned

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Maggy Hurchalla, longtime warrior for Florida’s environment, daughter of legendary Miami News reporter Jane Wood Reno, and sister of Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States, has been ordered by a court in Martin County to pay the very, very rich George Lindemann Jr. $4.4 million.


Here’s the upshot: in 2008, Lindemann cut a deal with the South Florida Water Management District and the Martin County Commission to mine some of the 2200 acres owned by his company Lake Point, digging up rocks to use in construction and using the resulting pits to store dirty water. The plan was to someday donate land to the county for stormwater treatment.  


Lindemann sees himself as a Good Guy, though in his rich-brat youth (aged 31), he did prison time. Supposedly a serious contender for the US Equestrian Olympic Team, in 1990, he paid a  horse hit man to electrocute his thoroughbred Charisma: he wanted to collect the $250,000 insurance. Lindemann would rather not talk about that. He’d rather you know that he’s given more than $10,000 to Audubon and chairs the board of trustees at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. 


Can’t blame him there: nobody likes a horse-murderer.


In 2011, Lindemann and Lake Point hit upon the bright idea to sell the water on their property through New Jersey-based American Water, the nation’s largest private utility company. Moving 35 million gallons of H2O every day would net large money. 


Except Lake Point forgot that water is a public resource. The people own it; and you can’t sell it without the right permits–which Lake Point failed to acquire. 


Lindemann told the Tampa Bay Times that Lake Point wasn’t charging for the actual water. The company was merely storing and cleaning it, keeping the water happy till it could go quench the thirsts and wash the bodies of aging boomers and Russian ex-pats flocking to the Treasure Coast. 


Also, Lake Point was supposed to be creating man-made wetlands to filter and clean the water. But it didn’t. Some at SFWMD didn’t seem to care: ever since Rick Scott became governor in January, 2011, he’d made it clear to the water management districts that they should be business friendly. Very friendly. Out went the scientists and in came the cronies, determined to monetize like hell.


Next thing you know, the Palm Beach Post went and wrote about the water deal. Maggy Hurchhalla took a dim view. She started speaking out against it, and accusing Lake Point of damaging wetlands. She sent emails to the Martin County Commission, expressing her opposition. The water district and Martin County backed out of the deal, so Lake Point sued them, subpoenaing emails between Hurchalla and the county commission. 


Lake Point sued Hurchalla, too, accusing her of lying about the wetlands and “coaching” at least one commissioner, giving “expert” advice on how to extract themselves from Lake Point and (shades of Hillary Clinton!) deleting some of the emails sent to her. 


Hurchalla’s crime? “Tortious interference,” or, in human-speak, trying to intentionally and unfairly damage a business–a classic SLAPP suit charge.


The county and the water district settled.  Hurchalla refused. 


Lindemann’s lawyers intimated there was something sinister about Hurchalla’s deleting emails, which is news to all of us private citizens who delete emails, even (perhaps especially) from politicians. 


Circuit Judge William Roby seemed to have made up his mind before Hurchalla had her say in court. At a meeting he called with her and her lawyer, he opined that she would lose the case and presented her with a draft apology. She could confess her transgressions and promise to never diss Lake Point again. 


Hurchalla declined. And lost.


She lost because Judge Roby let Lake Point lawyers imply no innocent person would delete emails. And because he instructed the jury that intentional “interference” in a contract, criticizing it, advocating for its demise, whatever, is culpable. 


This is insane. As Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation, says, “If the judgment against Maggy is allowed to stand, it will have a huge chilling effect on citizens throughout Florida.  We want citizens to engage with their government and what this SLAPP judgment says is its okay to engage so long as you don’t criticize, so long as you support rather than oppose development funded by deep pockets.”


Since the ruling against her, it’s been harassment piled on top of harassment, freezing and garnishing her accounts and seizing property–two weather-beaten kayaks and a Toyota with north of 207,000 miles on it, so far. Lake Point’s white shoe lawyers also demanded IRS statements and bank records, which got posted by the Martin County Clerk’s office without redacting her social security number and other personal information. 


One of these lawyers insisted she reveal the value of her “furs and jewels.” 


Hurchalla laughs: “I don’t seem to have any furs or jewels.” He then wanted to know if she’d had her wedding band appraised.


“Instead of encouraging civic engagement,” says Peterson, “the Hurchalla case warns us to keep our mouths shut and fingers off the keyboard.” 


There’s your lesson, Floridians: don’t cross rich people.


Maybe Maggy Hurchhalla hurt his feelings. Lindemann clearly thinks he’s a good guy, a green guy: he donated some land along Soak Creek up in Tennessee and was named the 2017 Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s “Conservationist of the Year,” damn it! Maybe he’s so accustomed to getting his way he simply must wreak disproportionate revenge on anyone who tries to thwart him. He wants to teach Maggy Hurchalla a lesson. 


But she’s not going away. And she’s not sorry for revealing that George Lindemann isn’t an environmentalist, just another in a long line of plutocrats pimping out Florida. 


Maggy Hurchalla is more interested in principle than money: “I can’t think of anything better to do when you’re 77 years old,” she says, “Than defend the First Amendment. Can you?”


Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.


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The Raid       July 16, 2018

Today, Lake Point, in conjunction with an officer from the Martin County Sheriff's Department, staged a raid that exemplifies what slappsuits are all about.
As we finished a deposition with Lake Point in an office north of Stuart, a deputy arrived and stated that he had a court order and was going to tow my aged Toyota.
I told him that if he could let us drive home, I could save him having to tow it and I could show him where the two kayaks were.
He answered that I could "deal later" with how to get me home, but I needed to give him the keys immediately or they would tow it. "We have an order and we have found the car here so we must remove it now." 
I suggested it would be easier to take everything together from our home since that's where the order said the car and the kayaks were located and I could show him which kayaks he wanted. He refused and said they were presently at my house removing the kayaks. 
When I did get a ride home the ancient kayaks were gone and papers were stuffed in the screen door.
There is something very childish about thinking that if they take away my car and my toys I will burst into tears and stop defending the first amendment. The car and the kayaks c can be replaced. The first amendment cannot.
Lake Point supporters have said that if I do not apologize to George Lindemann for saying that a hole in the ground can't store water and an agricultural wetlands is a wetland, he would destroy me.
I will not be destroyed.
What will be destroyed are the last shreds of Lindemann's reputation. I can't imagine that, if he continues to act like a vengeful billionaire, that anyone would want to do business with him ever again.
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Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

 TAMPA BAY TIMES EDITORIAL,  Published: July 17, 2018


Courtesy of Maggy Hurchalla Maggy Hurchalla, right, a former Martin County commissioner, spoke out against the county's deal with Lake Point Restoration, a mining company owned by billionaire George Lindemann Jr., left, and wound up being sued by the company, which claimed she had interfered with a legal contract. The jury agreed.

 


Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin County sheriff’s deputies armed with a court order seized the 14-year-old car and the kayaks — the only property owned by the 77-year-old sister of late Attorney General Janet Reno.

This bullying should send a chill through every Floridian who cherishes their constitutional rights to free speech and to petition their government, and the Florida Supreme Court ultimately will have to correct this miscarriage of justice.

The David vs. Goliath drama played out on Florida’s east coast with themes that include the environment and the water supply, open government and a citizen’s right to protest to their elected officials.

 

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Craig Pittman reported in May, billionaire George Lindemann Jr. put together a group to buy 2,200 acres of sugar cane fields near Lake Okeechobee in Martin County that is known as Lake Point. The idea was to dig up rocks to sell for construction projects and use the mining pits to store and clean water from the lake. By 2009, the South Florida Water Management District and the Martin County Commission signed off on the deal.

 

Then it got more complicated. Lake Point came up with a new idea in 2011 to sell the water in the pits. Lindemann told Pittman that Lake Point actually would have been paid for storing and cleaning the water, because nobody can sell water without state permission. But the idea didn’t sit well with the water management district or Martin County, and Hurchalla protested after the concept became public in 2012.

Hurchalla sent emails to Martin County commissioners urging them to get out of their agreement with Lake Point, and the deal fell apart. Lake Point sued the water management district, Martin County and Hurchalla. It turned out that Hurchalla sent some emails to the county commissioners’ personal accounts and the county failed to turn them over.

Two commissioners have been charged with violating public records laws, and the water management district and Martin County settled for millions with Lake Point in 2017. Hurchalla refused to apologize and went to trial, where Lake Point lawyers suggested there was something "sinister’’ about her deleting her emails to county commissioners — which as a private citizen she had no obligation to keep. Yet a circuit court jury in Martin County ruled against her in February and awarded Lake Point absurd damages of $4.4 million.

Talbot "Sandy’’ D’Alemberte, the former American Bar Association president working pro bono on Hurchalla’s appeal, accurately calls this a classic SLAPP lawsuit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation aimed at intimidating and silencing critics.

 

"She did nothing but send emails to county commissioners,’’ he told the Times editorial board Tuesday. "What they’re really coming after is your rights to petition the government and free speech.’’ The First Amendment Foundation (disclosure: Times Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens serves on the foundation’s board), the Florida League of Women Voters and the Florida Press Association are among the organizations planning to file a brief in support of Hurchalla’s appeal.

 

That appeal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal based in West Palm Beach isn’t likely to be heard until early next year, and then the case is likely to move to the Florida Supreme Court. Hurchalla could have posted a bond to protect her car and kayaks, but D’Alemberte said the cost would have been prohibitive.

So deputies towed away the Toyota Monday, and they picked up the old kayaks, including one Hurchalla and her sister used on the Potomac River as Secret Service agents protecting the attorney general trailed behind.

"There is something very childish about thinking that if they take away my car and my toys I will burst into tears and stop defending the First Amendment,’’ Hurchalla wrote in an email to several reporters. "The car and the kayaks can be replaced. The First Amendment cannot.’’

Agreed. Florida needs more engaged citizens like Maggy Hurchalla who aren’t afraid to tell government officials what they think — not fewer.

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$4.4M verdict: Now they’re taking ex-Martin commissioner’s car, kayaks

By Kimberly Miller - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer,  Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno (third from left) and her sister Maggy Hurchalla (third from right) during a kayak trip in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Maggy Hurchalla)

Janet Reno’s weathered kayak and 2004 Toyota Camry were seized in Stuart this week as a billionaire-backed mining company pursues a $4.4 million judgment against Reno’s sister, former Martin County commissioner Maggy Hurchalla.

The swirly blue kayak, bought in 1996 by Hurchalla so she and Reno could paddle the Potomac River when Reno was U.S. Attorney General, was one of two taken from Hurchalla’s yard Monday by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

The seizure, which included only the two kayaks and aging Camry, is the latest twist in a years-long court battle brought by Martin County-based Lake Point Restoration against the 77-year-old Hurchalla. Lake Point is co-owned by former Wellington resident and one-time equestrian hopeful George Lindemann, Jr., who is heir to a cell phone and cable TV fortune.

A writ of execution signed Monday ordered sheriff’s deputies to take the three items. The Camry, which has 207,000 miles on it and no air conditioning, replaced Reno’s famous “little red truck” — the 1999 Ford Ranger pickup she drove during her 2002 campaign for Florida governor.

Reno died in 2016 at the age of 78 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. She gave the Camry to Hurchalla when the disease made it difficult for her to drive.

“The value of what they are seizing is clearly not very much,” said Hurchalla’s attorney, Virginia Sherlock. “Lake Point doesn’t have any interest in making money, or getting their judgment satisfied. They are just trying to hurt Maggy.”

Kelley Blue Book puts the trade-in value of the Camry between $754 and $1,475. The kayak Hurchalla purchased for Reno in 1996 was bought used from a summer camp. The other kayak is 15 years old, Hurchalla said.

“She’s a 77-year-old woman who still goes out in her kayak and enjoys it to clear her mind, and they’ve taken her kayaks away,” Sherlock said.

Hurchalla, a stalwart Martin County environmentalist, lost a court case in February in which Lake Point charged that she lied to Martin County commissioners about the destruction of wetlands in an effort to kill a 2009 agreement that allowed the company to mine as part of a public works project with the South Florida Water Management District. Hurchalla was a private citizen at the time.

Lake Point’s attorney, Ethan Loeb, said $22 million in damages was done to the company by the emails. The jury awarded Lake Point $4.39 million.

“Ms. Hurchalla is trying to make this about the owners of Lake Point. It’s not about them,” said Lake Point spokeswoman Honey Rand in a statement about the property seizure. “At any point, Ms. Hurchalla could have admitted that she lied and the case would have gone away. She created this situation and she alone could have resolved it.”

Hurchalla, who has an appeal pending in the 4th District Court of Appeal, said she was only exercising her First Amendment right to contact her elected officials with concerns.

MUST READ: Palm Beach Post’s profile of Hurchalla and her memories of beloved sister “Janny”

“There is something very childish about thinking that if they take away my car and toys I will burst into tears and stop defending the First Amendment,” Hurchalla said. “The car and the kayaks can be replaced. The First Amendment cannot.”

Lake Point also has garnished Hurchalla’s bank accounts, Sherlock said.

For Lake Point, the February ruling against Hurchalla was a third victory in a five-year court battle that cowed the South Florida Water Management District and Martin County, both of which settled related cases with Lake Point in 2017. The district’s settlement, approved in August, promises to buy 50,000 tons of rubble annually from Lake Point’s mine in western Martin County for 15 years. After 50 years, the district gets the mined land for water treatment and storage ponds.

RELATED: Lake Point wins nearly $4.4 million settlement against Hurchalla

Martin County agreed to pay $12 million for a non-appraised, 400-acre piece of land it doesn’t want and write an apology to Lake Point principals, including Lindemann.

Neither Martin County nor the district were thrilled with the settlements. But both were willing to end the expensive legal wrangling with a deep-pocketed company bent on a win.

In an April 2017 meeting with water management board members, the district’s attorney told them Lake Point was “out for vengeance” and that it wanted to “punish governments that wronged them.” He said Lake Point wanted the lengthy legal machinations “to be painful.”
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SOMEONE HAS TO STAND UP TO BULLIES

If you don’t, they will take over the world.

If you don’t stand up to the Big Bullies, all the little bullies will come out of the woodwork.

Lake Point is a Big Bully. The Lindemann family has a reputation for using unlimited resources to sue opposition into submission.

In 2008 George Lindemann Jr.’s Lake Point group paid $53 million for a wet sugar cane field in western Martin County. He said he had no business plan and did no appraisals. He bought in the middle of the 2008 crash.

Lake Point lost millions from 2008 to 2013 trying to sell rock when the market had bottomed out. Then they tried to recoup their investment by selling water.

When that didn’t work he sued everyone in sight.

They sued SFWMD because they told them they couldn’t sell water.

They sued Martin County because the County insisted on enforcing the terms of the agreement they had with SFWMD.

They sued me to make me be quiet.

Back in 2016 Judge McManus awarded summary judgment to SFWMD stating that the contract they had with Lake Point did not allow Lake Point to sell water

For Judge McManus'ruling see www.SLAPPMaggy.com.

After five years of being legally bullied and after their own attorneys said they could win, SFWMD gave up and told Lake Point they could sell water and mine the property for fifty years. Under the settlement they would have absolutely no responsibility to provide any public benefits.

Court watchers estimate that SFWMD is now spending over $100,000 on outside attorneys to make sure that no one EVER sees the transcript of the secret meeting where the SFWMD Board decided to turn victory into defeat at public expense.

Two months later Martin County succumbed to legal bullying and gave Lake Point everything they wanted including an abject apology.

I’m the last one standing.

I am not giving up.

According to the US Supreme Court: “those who won our independence believed ... that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”

Lake Point insisted that sending emails to your commissioners at their home address was illegal.

It is not.

They said I made false statements about them. I did not. I would be happy to review with anyone all the statements I made and why they are true. My concerns about Lake Point were raised early and repeated often. They were not secret.

Lake Point says I made the County issue a Notice of Violation. County staff testified that I had nothing to do with the Violation Notice they issued.

They said I attempted to influence my elected officials on important public issues. According to the Supreme Court, that is not illegal. They said it was a bedrock of democracy.

Lake Point convinced Judge Roby to tell the jury that the first amendment does not apply to contracts.

It does.

Why am I spending my old age fighting a billionaire bully?

Imagine what politics would be like if citizens could not criticize a government contract without being sued for millions of dollars. If you found your officials were giving away the store with your tax dollars, you couldn’t mention it.

Imagine how that would hurt democracy and help corruption.

Two of the best first amendment lawyers in the country have offered to handle my appeal. They believe there are important constitutional issues involved.

I’m proud and happy to have them defending me and defending our Constitution.

Equally important to me is what it would do to Martin County if I give up and the Big Bully wins on all fronts .Lake Point would own us.

Imagine what it would be like if Martin County put out a big red sign that said:

SUE US AND WE WILL SURRENDER

Our comprehensive plan would become a meaningless piece of paper given away piece by piece in secret “settlement negotiations.”

If they thought the Big Bullies and the little bullies were going to sue them, no resident would dare to send an email or walk up to the podium to talk to the county commission

Martin County is what it is because residents have never been afraid to tell their commissioners what kind of county they want to live in. That’s why we’re different. Left to themselves, too many politicians will do what special interest want and hope the public doesn’t notice.

If we lose the passionate public participation of Martin County residents, we will lose what made us special..

The Constitution is worth fighting for.

Martin County is worth fighting for.

I don’t believe we can let a biased judge and a vengeful billionaire redefine first amendment rights.


We kept the faith. We fought the good fight. 


We will finish the race.


Thank you for having my back, 


Maggy Reno Hurchalla




Lake Point Hard Hats

The Slappee with Slapp Protector attorneys Howard Heims and Ginny Sherlock on a court ordered inspection tour of Lake Point.