SLAPP Maggy News Coverage

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)

In 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.

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.


Governments resist citizens on public records

Monday, May 28, 2018 at 7:30 pm John Kennedy GateHouse Capital Bureau @JKennedyReport

TALLAHASSEE — A long-running clash between state water managers and a celebrated environmental activist is heightening tension over aggressive tactics used by Florida governments pushing back against citizens seeking public records.

The battle also is putting Florida at the forefront of a rising trend.

Instead of turning over requests for records, a growing number of cities, school boards and other government agencies across the nation are suing people seeking documents — forcing them to decide whether it’s worth fighting for their request in court — at their own expense.

Legislation to outlaw this tactic cleared the Florida House this year, but failed in the Senate.

“It’s a form of harassment,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, at the University of Florida.

“People can just seek a public record and find themselves suddenly dragged into court. They weren’t expecting that,” he added.

A fierce fight in Martin County has alarmed many government watchdogs.

Maggy Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner and sister of late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, is appealing a $4.4 million judgment against her by a jury earlier this year, which found she used her influence as a conservationist to disparage a mining company’s project — sending critical emails to commissioners.

The verdict capped a five-year struggle marked by charges of public records violations involving two commissioners and a former commissioner.

It also led to an $18 million settlement for the mining company, Lake Point, from Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District.

Now, a related clash has emerged over public records requests for transcripts of the closed-door district meeting that preceded the costly legal settlement with Lake Point.

When the Everglades Law Center requested a record of what was said during the meeting, district lawyers sued the nonprofit, and threatened to subpoena Hurchalla and 16 citizens who made similar demands.

After a judge sided with water managers who refused to turn over transcripts, the records case — like the multi-million-dollar judgement against Hurchalla — is headed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

“We didn’t sue them. They sued us. All we did was ask for records,” said Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center.

“All any of these people did was ask for records,” she added. “It’s very chilling. It’s like a move to chill people from requesting records.”

Attorneys for the South Florida Water Management District defended their action, saying the records request was basically a nuisance, designed to make the district pay the legal fees of Hurchalla and others if the documents were not surrendered quickly.

UF’s LoMonte said such fights over public records should not be occurring.

Government agencies generally know what constitutes a public record and should not sue the requester to have a judge determine whether they should turn over documents, he said.

The lawsuits usually ask judges to rule that the records sought should not be released. Advocates say the lawsuits are aimed at blunting the release of information that might be embarrassing, or politically harmful to elected officials.

Sometimes, it’s just bullying, critics said.

“It’s a legal tactic that puts the requester on the defensive,” LoMonte said.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida media-backed First Amendment Foundation, said she was disappointed to hear governments testify before the Legislature in support of the approach.

“It’s a very aggressive move by cities and counties against their citizens,” Petersen said. “We’ve been seeing an uptick in these cases across the country, and it’s a very bad trend.”

Even if agencies are ultimately required to make the records public, they often will not have to pay the requester’s legal bills.

Legislation sponsored earlier this year by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, would have prohibited governments from filing lawsuits against those seeking public records.

The measure (HB 273, SB 750) was approved by the House 108-0, but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, after the Florida League of Cities raised concerns about the measure’s potential sweep.

Casey Cook, the league’s senior legislative advocate, said there are few instances of Florida governments using a lawsuit as a stall or harassment tactic.

But he said there are occasions when there is a dispute about whether a record is public, or shielded under an exemption or privacy laws. It may take a judge to sort out, Cook said.

“It is an approach that has proved useful in certain circumstances,” Cook said of the lawsuits.

Cook said that following the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the city of Orlando needed a judge to determine which records should be made public to media outlets after receiving conflicting demands to withhold records as part of the FBI’s criminal investigation.

While freedom-of-information advocates acknowledge that the lawsuit approach is not frequently deployed, they say it’s a legal strategy threatens the public’s right to know.

Among the earliest examples in Florida was a 2009 Hallandale Beach case where a blogger, Mike Butler, was sued by the city when he sought access to Mayor Joy Cooper’s email sent from a private server under the subject line “Mayor Cooper’s Update.”

Butler wanted a list of recipients for the email, but was denied by a judge who ruled that was not a public document.

Butler has since been elected to the Hallandale Beach City Commission. Cooper was suspended by Gov. Rick Scott in January on public corruption charges after being caught in an FBI sting.

In a separate matter, Cooper also is denying the conclusion of a Broward County Inspector General’s report that she violated the state’s open government laws by attending 26 meetings that had no public notice.

“The whole public records law is getting twisted and it’s becoming fashionable for cities to sue those seeking records,” said Sarasota attorney Andrea Mogensen, who settled in 2008 with the city of Venice following a long open government fight involving deleted emails and secret meetings.

“Governments are not supposed to be in the business of figuring out how not to disclose,” Mogensen said. “The government doesn’t own these records. The people do.”


Only in Florida: Battle over water, free speech pits billionaire vs. activist

by Craig Pittman, published May 10, 2018

This is a story about free speech, government secrecy and a fight over tens of millions in taxpayer funds. The players include a billionaire who once had a hit man kill his horse, two politicians charged with breaking the Sunshine Law and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s sister.

But the most important aspect of this story is about Florida’s water supply and how a lawsuit involving a company called Lake Point Restoration may upend a fundamental rule about Florida water — namely, that water belongs to the public, not wealthy businessmen.

One of the participants contends that what happened in that years-long suit will open the door for big companies to jump into the water business, driving up prices and starving the environment. Sugar companies, citrus growers and phosphate miners could start commandeering the water on their land and selling it.

Right now, Florida law says fresh water is "a public resource benefiting the entire state," not just big corporations and their owners, said Cynthia Barnett, Environmental Fellow in Residence at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service and the author of three books on water policy. The law also says water "must be managed in a manner to ensure its sustainability."

No one is allowed to sell water he or she happens to find, not without proving to state officials that doing so is in the public interest, she said.

But that, say water experts, may be changing, thanks in part to this case.

• • •

The story begins with polo ponies.

In 2005, a developer bought 2,200 acres of sugar cane fields near Lake Okeechobee in Martin County. The company planned to turn the land into a residential development called Lake Point that would be marketed to polo players. But by the time the company got the building permits, Florida’s real estate industry had collapsed. Nothing was built, and the property went back on the market.

A broker brought it to the attention of investor George Lindemann Jr., who had made millions restoring and selling old commercial buildings in Miami Beach. He already had plenty of money from family connections — his father made a fortune in the cell phone and cable TV industry.

In 2008, Lindemann put together a consortium of family members and business partners to buy the Lake Point property. Instead of ponies and houses, their plan involved mining and water.Calling the operation Lake Point Restoration, Lindemann’s group wanted to dig up rocks to sell for building roads and other construction projects. The pits left by the mining would store water from Lake Okeechobee when the lake got too full, as well as clean its pollution.

Lindemann is a self-professed environmentalist who has given more than $10,000 to Audubon Florida and last year was named "Conservationist of the Year" by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. He said the idea of using the property for both mining and cleaning up pollution is why he wanted in on the deal.

"What attracted me was it was an opportunity to do something in a different way — to be helpful and make money," Lindemann said in his first in-depth interview.

Lindemann had never tackled a real estate project quite like this. But he’s not the typical Florida real estate investor.

Lindemann, 54, is the rare billionaire who has spent time behind bars. In 1995, as he aspired to Olympic equestrian glory, Lindemann was convicted of wire fraud after paying a hit man $25,000 to electrocute his own horse, Charisma. He did it so he could collect $250,000 in insurance money. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison and served about a year.

Going from a life of luxury to being behind bars "was a very traumatizing experience," Lindemann said.

• • •

Lindemann said his group moved carefully with the next step, meeting with officials from the South Florida Water Management District to make sure they would go along with the plan. They were eager to join forces, he said, which is what persuaded his group to spend $50 million buying the land.

"It had never been done before," he said. "That’s what was exciting about it."

The state water agency, which is run by gubernatorial appointees, had been under fire for years for allowing the dumping of polluted lake water into sensitive estuaries, harming the fishing and tourism industries. The agency wanted to buy the Lake Point property, too, but lacked the money.

Lake Point and the agency signed an agreement in 2008 to work together, a move the water district labeled a "significant achievement." Lindemann says it was hailed as a template for future public-private partnerships for Everglades restoration.

Because the property was in Martin County, commissioners there also signed off on the project, agreeing in 2009 that Lake Point could mine the property in exchange for promising it would someday donate the property to the state.

But according to Lindemann, no one from either government agency asked one crucial question: Once the water had been cleaned in Lake Point’s pits, where would it go?

"The eventual destination of the water was purposely left open-ended," he said.

• • •

In 2011, Lake Point contacted the nation’s largest private utility company, American Water, about joining forces to launch a new business venture: selling the water in the pits. The utility liked the idea.

"It was a very unique project and from an environmental perspective it had a lot of promising attributes," said David Orr, American Water’s former vice president for business development.

The following year, as a drought plagued South Florida, American Water and Lake Point approached West Palm Beach officials and offered them water. Their goal: Move up to 35 million gallons per day and collect millions of dollars.

It was a calculated business move. The construction industry demand for rock fluctuates, but the demand for fresh water in Florida is expected to only increase.

Lindemann insists now that they weren’t actually selling the water.

"The money they were going to pay us was for storage, cleaning and conveyance of the water," he said. "You’re not allowed to sell water in Florida."

But that’s not the way others saw it, including the South Florida Water Management District. Lake Point hadn’t sought the permits that utilities are supposed to get.

"Lake Point’s idea wasn’t so bad," the water agency’s general counsel, Brian Accardo, told state officials during a closed-door session four years later. "It’s just, you know, they didn’t have the legal right to do it."

In states east of the Mississippi, including Florida, "water is considered to be ‘held’ by the state in trust for all the people," explained Christine Klein, director of the University of Florida’s program in environmental law.

Nobody can sell water without getting permission from one of the state’s five water management districts, which examine whether the proposed sale is for a "beneficial use" that’s "in the public interest," said David Still, former executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District. That includes considering what impact it might have on the environment.

If landowners or companies were to sell any water they found on their land, as Lake Point was proposing, it would undermine Florida’s longstanding water rules, said Emilio "Sonny" Vergara, who has served as executive director of both the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

However, Vergara said, "over the last eight years everything has been evolving."

For instance, he said, some Florida cities have been claiming that reclaimed water from their sewer plants belongs to them, not to the public, so they can sell it for a profit. Utilities have been pushing to bend the rules so they can supply water to paying customers they weren’t supposed to serve. Lake Point was just taking this evolution further.

In Vergara’s opinion, though, the Lake Point water plan was "clearly against the law."

• • •

The Palm Beach Post broke the story on the Lake Point-American Water proposal in 2012. To critics, the revelation raised doubts about how environmentally friendly Lake Point really was.

Because of concerns about the fluctuating water level in Lake Okeechobee, the South Florida district stopped allowing any additional use of the lake for drinking and irrigation in 2008. Yet now here was Lake Point trying to do just that.

Still, some water district officials actually liked the Lake Point proposal — and that led to problems. They let the owners slide on completing other jobs they were supposed be doing, such as building artificial wetlands to clean the water, according to another water district attorney, James Nutt.

Meanwhile, Martin County officials were horrified. To them it sounded like Lake Point had been a Trojan horse, promising environmental benefits and then sneaking in to steal water they regarded as theirs. An uproar ensued.

"All hell started breaking loose," Lindemann said. "All of us all of a sudden were living in the Twilight Zone," as the story turned them from heroes to villains.

• • •

The Post story certainly made Maggy Hurchalla take notice.

Hurchalla is a former Martin County commissioner and a prominent environmental activist. She had briefly met with Lindemann before Lake Point bought its property. She says she advised him against trying to hold water in mining pits because they often leak.

But she said she missed much of the subsequent deal-making with Lake Point because she was in Miami caring for her dying sister, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, as well as her brother Robert Reno, a newspaper columnist who died in 2012. She was also coping with her own health woes, including a diagnosis of breast cancer.

She saw Lake Point’s water-sale idea as a bad omen for Florida. If allowed to stand, she said, "I’m sure the sugar companies would quit growing sugar cane and just sell their water." Other big companies with ponds or pits could follow suit, she said.

Hurchalla warned the Stuart News that what Lake Point wanted to do would be a bad deal, increasing pressure on Lake Okeechobee. She began sending emails to the Martin County commissioners urging them to get out of their agreement with Lake Point. To her, she was just exercising free speech.

"You have a right to communicate with your elected representatives," Hurchalla, 77, said in an interview.

From Lindemann’s viewpoint, though, she went beyond what’s legally allowed by giving the commissioners directions on how to get out of the agreement. He also contends she lied, telling commissioners Lake Point’s mining was damaging wetlands so they would be angry enough to break with his company. (Hurchalla insists the wetlands damage was real.)

If Hurchalla had made her anti-Lake Point comments in an open commission meeting, then she would have been protected by the First Amendment, Lindemann contended, "but she did it in hidden emails. The notion that this is just someone speaking her mind — that’s not the case."

The commissioners followed Hurchalla’s suggestions, with one of them calling Lake Point’s water move "environmental treachery." Hurchalla scoffs at the idea that she played puppet master with Martin’s commissioners. She says they canceled the contract because Lake Point wasn’t following through on all the projects it had promised to complete, not because she told them to.

Lake Point’s agreement with the water agency was thrown into jeopardy as well. Water district officials were unhappy that while pursuing its water deal, Lake Point had failed to build the artificial wetlands. Lake Point blamed Martin County.

The loss of its two government agreements meant Lake Point’s partnership with American Water fell apart before it got started. In 2013, Lake Point sued the water agency, Martin County and Hurchalla. The company contended the two agencies had reneged without cause, and it accused Hurchalla of interfering in a legal contract.

At first, all three defendants fought back hard. Lindemann’s fraud conviction came up repeatedly in discussions about the suit. Some questioned why, with that background, the government had gone into partnership with his company.

"They are, you know, they’re not the most trustworthy folks," Accardo, the water district attorney, said during one closed-door meeting. "I mean, the principal of Lake Point, he has a criminal record, right?" He suggested they avoid ever doing business with Lake Point again.

• • •

As is usual with a lawsuit involving Florida government agencies, Lake Point’s attorneys demanded to see all emails relevant to the case. Under the state’s Sunshine Law, they were entitled to them. Martin County turned over the ones from the commissioners’ official accounts.

Then, during one of Hurchalla’s pre-trial depositions, she mentioned emails that Lake Point’s attorneys hadn’t seen. That’s when they learned that Hurchalla had discussed Lake Point with some commissioners via their personal email accounts. The county had failed to turn those over.

They also learned Hurchalla had deleted some of her emails.

"They broke the law, and we caught them doing it," Lindemann contended.

Hurchalla said she wasn’t trying to hide anything. She was just using the email addresses in her address book, she said. Some of the emails she jokingly signed as "Deep Rock Pit." She said she deleted some emails because her inbox was full.

Because some commissioners — one of them a former judge — had not given those emails to Lake Point, a grand jury last year charged two of them with criminal violations of the Sunshine Law. A third commissioner was later also charged. They have pleaded not guilty.

Such charges are rare, said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, as prosecutors hardly ever pursue a criminal case for withholding or destroying records.

Soon after the emails were revealed, the water district and Martin County agreed to settle with Lake Point. The water agency agreed to buy at least 50,000 tons of rock a year from Lake Point for 15 years, paying about $21 million total, and said it would continue working with Lake Point for another 50 years.

The 2017 settlement specifically says that Lake Point could "earn and collect all revenue of any kind" including "lease or sale of water storage, water transfer, water transportation, water conveyance, water use or irrigation rights." Accardo contends Lake Point would still need a state permit to sell water, but the settlement agreement makes no mention of that requirement.

Martin County agreed to settle for $12 million. Sarah Heard, one of the commissioners who voted against the settlement — and who was charged with breaking the Sunshine Law — said the decision resulted from the election of new commissioners backed by Lindemann. The other commissioners either declined comment or did not respond to calls for comment.

The county had to borrow $15 million to cover both the payment and attorney’s fees, according to Heard. The settlement also required the commissioners to sign a letter apologizing for "the harsh words and inappropriate deeds" that had "unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point."

Why did the water district settle? The decision took place behind closed doors, which state law allows. Once the case ends, a transcript of the meeting is supposed to be made public. However, the water district has fought hard against releasing it, to the point of suing or threatening to subpoena the personal records of anyone who requested it.

Often when a government agency strongly resists turning over a meeting transcript, said Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, that’s a sign they’re hiding something.

Accardo denies that. He said the water board settled because it was wary of spending more money on a case that had already cost $1 million. He said they kept it secret because Lake Point requested it — but Lake Point’s attorney says the company has no objection to releasing it now.

• • •

The dual settlements left Hurchalla as the lone defendant. Shortly after her February 2018 trial began, Circuit Judge William L. Roby called her and her attorney aside and predicted they would lose. According to Hurchalla and her attorney, the judge said Lindemann would drop the suit if she would apologize and agree never to comment on Lake Point again.

"I want her to correct the record and retract her false statements," Lindemann said in his interview. (He was unable to explain why Lake Point did not demand the water agency apologize, too.)

Hurchalla refused.

The trial took eight days, during which Lake Point’s attorneys read the Martin County apology letter to the jury as part of the evidence against her. The judge ruled that no one could mention that Hurchalla had cancer, or that Lindemann had a criminal background. The commissioners’ criminal charges were ruled off limits, as was any mention of Lake Point selling water.

Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb of Tampa portrayed Hurchalla as a Machiavellian character who operated in the shadows to get what she wanted, even lying about the wetlands damage. Hurchalla’s attorney, Virginia Sherlock of Stuart, contended Hurchalla was just doing what the Constitution hopes all citizens will do: Get involved in local government.

"You don’t have a First Amendment right to lie," Loeb said in a recent interview.

The jury took just 90 minutes to rule against Hurchalla and award Lake Point damages of $4.4 million. They saw no other choice, according to jury foreman Steve Hursh.

"It didn’t have anything to do with the First Amendment at all, " said Hursh, owner of a carpet-cleaning business. He said the six jurors thought that Hurchalla using the commissioners’ personal email addresses "just looked bad."

Hurchalla compared the jury’s decision to being caught inside a Carl Hiaasen novel.

"We live in a really weird world over here," she said.

Lindemann hopes that now that the suit is over, Lake Point Restoration can go back to doing everything it was doing before the rift with its partners. The company’s website boasts that it’s "bringing green jobs to Florida and restoring the Everglades," but there’s no mention of water.

As for Hurchalla, she’s appealing the verdict with pro bono assistance from former American Bar Association president Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte, who calls it "this crazy case."

Even if she loses on appeal, Hurchalla said she can’t pay the billionaire. She joked that really all Lindemann could get from her is "two kayaks and an aging Toyota."

The car used to belong to her sister.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.


by Martin Merzer, date April 23, 2018

The slappee is a 77-year-old grandmother, a prominent Florida environmentalist, a sister of the late Janet Reno. Now, after expressing her rights of free speech in opposing a land development, Maggy Hurchalla is on the hook for $4,391,708 in a court-ordered judgment.

She doesn’t have it. She drives a 2004 Toyota Corolla with 207,000 miles on the odometer. “They can do whatever they want, but I’m not going away,” Hurchalla said. “If you can’t complain and moan in a democracy, what’s the point of having a democracy?”

The slapper is the scion of a family of multibillionaires, a developer who reshaped a proposed polo community into a dusty rock pit, a fellow with a penchant for litigation and also a criminal record.

George Lindemann Jr., heir to a cellphone, natural gas and broadcasting fortune, once spent 33 months in jail for hiring a hit man to electrocute a show horse named Charisma for $250,000 in insurance loot.

Disputes, court cases and regulatory actions have been detonating for ten years over Lindemann’s 2,200-acre “Lake Point” project in far-western Martin County, near Lake Okeechobee. Hurchalla, a Stuart resident and former county commissioner, has been one of the project’s most active critics, opposing it on environmental and other grounds.

Now, the latest and perhaps most weighty chapter of this tangled, acrimonious legal saga involves what Hurchalla, her attorneys and many outside experts call a patently obvious “SLAPP” suit filed in 2013 against Hurchalla by attorneys for Lindemann’s Lake Point project.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Banned by law in many states but only moderately restrained by Florida law, SLAPP suits are just as self-described.

They’re intended to chill public expression, public discourse and public participation in controversial issues. They’re intended to strip away fundamental First Amendment rights to engage in free speech and — as the U.S. Constitution sanctifies — “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Put another way, SLAPP suits are nuisance suits on steroids — intended to harass and burden with thick, unremitting legal filings and perpetually rising legal costs people who criticize or otherwise oppose consumer products, government agencies or, as in this case, business executives or their projects.

“The point of this is simply to frighten anyone else from ever — ever — saying anything about them again,” said Hurchalla, whose late sister was the second-longest serving U.S. Attorney General in history.

Generally, SLAPP suits are not about money, but rather about achieving silence. “Generally” is the key word in that sentence.

The suit at issue here includes a financial component — that $4,391,708 judgment (plus court costs that could add another $1 million) imposed this past February by a six-member jury after an eight-day trial.

That trial and many other elements of the case were overseen by Circuit Judge William Roby, who seems enduringly hostile to Hurchalla and curiously friendly to her opponents.

In March, Lake Point lawyers obtained from Roby orders to freeze and garnish Hurchalla’s bank and other accounts. The orders also require her to produce countless tax returns, bank statements and many other personal documents. Interestingly and rather uniquely, similar orders were filed against her defense attorneys.

In what they call one of the more egregious incidents involving Roby, Hurchalla and her attorneys say they were summoned into a meeting with him after just one day of testimony in her trial and before her side presented any testimony at all. They say he told her that she likely would lose and that she should sign a letter he presented to her — a letter in which she would apologize for her previous comments about Lake Point and promise not to criticize it in the future.

She refused, and her lawyers say the offer revealed her opponents’ true motivation. “The judge sought resolution, not by suggesting any monetary payment, but through an agreement for steps that would intrude on Mrs. Hurchalla’s rights to free discussion of public issues, past and future,” they wrote in an appeal.

Her legal team is trying to get Roby removed from the case, demanding — among other things — a new trial before a different judge.

“What it comes down to,” Hurchalla said, “is that I criticized a rock pit operation owned by the son of a billionaire and was convicted in a SLAPP suit on which we are now engaging in a very important First Amendment fight.

“These lawsuits are meant not just to harass and intimidate and get you to give up, but also to make everyone else say, ‘I’m not going to be in that situation,’” she said. “It’s meant to kill free speech, and it’s being used more and more around the country.”

In recent weeks, outraged by Judge Roby’s persistent refusal to recognize Hurchalla’s First Amendment rights and by his other rulings and actions, some of Florida’s foremost legal minds have joined Hurchalla’s legal team.

These include Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte of Tallahassee, a former president of the American Bar Association and former president of Florida State University, and Richard Ovelmen of Miami, one of the nation’s most prominent First Amendment lawyers. They are working without fee.

“Honestly, so much has been done wrong here,” D’Alemberte said. “I’ve been practicing law since 1962, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. If we can’t win this case, I should be disbarred.”

Also taking interest in the case are some of the nation’s leading First Amendment defenders. “I believe the actions taken by Lake Point against Maggy and the threats against Nat are over the top,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

Nat is Nathaniel Reed, 84, another leading Florida environmentalist, a former assistant U.S. secretary of the interior and a director of the Everglades Foundation. Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb of Tampa also went after him, trying to compel Reed by written notice to alter previous testimony in a deposition or retract statements that tended to support Hurchalla and express opposition to the rock pit project.

Loeb allegedly did this without notifying Hurchalla’s attorneys, even though Reed was listed as a witness in the case. In response, Hurchalla’s defense team is seeking professional sanctions against Lindemann’s defense team, claiming attempted witness tampering and harassment.

Meanwhile, Reed told Lake Point’s team, in effect, to go out to that mining pit and … pound rock.

“In closing,” Reed wrote in response to Loeb’s demand, “let me just say that I take your letter as a threat against me personally and as your attempt, as a member of the Bar, to try to intimidate me to change my testimony. I find your actions unprofessional.”

As one can see, the case at issue here is complex, with many branches and side cases. Over the last decade, it has generated scores, maybe hundreds, of filings, motions, countermotions, subpoenas, rulings, depositions and appeals — and very many billable hours for Loeb and Lake Point’s other attorneys.

In a nutshell, here’s the background:

Lindemann paid $47.7 million in 2008 for the land he was to call Lake Point. The property was designated as a polo community, but when the Great Recession and housing crash exploded a few months later, he repurposed the project into a mining operation.

Hurchalla, Reed and others eventually came to oppose the project, on environmental and other grounds. Among other things, Lake Point proposed to store publicly owned water in the rock pit’s empty holes and then sell the public’s water back to … the public.

Hurchalla spoke openly and lobbied privately against it. At first, she and other opponents gained traction, with both Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) opposing Lake Point’s plan.

Then, Lake Point brought in the heavy legal artillery from Tampa. By last year, both Martin County and the SFWMD found reason to reverse course, approve the rock pit operation and sign settlements. The mine currently is producing road rock and other products.

The pivotal Aug. 23 closed-door meeting in which the SFWMD agreed to settle the case remains under wraps. When about 20 members of the public asked the public agency to provide a public record of a matter of public interest, the district claimed it was being harassed and threatened to issue subpoenas and take legal action against them. Judge Roby ruled against the environmentalists in that one, too.

This also has aroused defenders of free speech and open government.

“I believe the action taken by the SFWMD is dangerously chilling…,” said Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. “Do I need to worry each time I make a public records request that the custodial agency will haul me into court?”

That battlefront remains active, as does the battlefront involving Hurchalla, who got slapped big-time with that lawsuit five years ago.

In their court documents, Lake Point’s lawyers deny that they are engaged in a SLAPP action. Instead, they say, the case really is about her alleged “tortious interference” in a contract between Lake Point, the county and the water district.

They’re really big fans of free speech, Lake Point’s lawyers said, and they would never bury an opponent under reams of legal actions in a vindictive attempt to harass and silence that opponent. They said this in a 593-page court filing that weighed 6 pounds.

“Free speech, however, has limits,” they wrote in that filing. “Nobody — not even Maggy Hurchalla — has the right to lie to government officials in order to cause harm to third parties without certain consequences.”

Nonsense, says D’Alemberte, the rest of the defense team and Hurchalla. No one on their side is lying about anything, they said.

“This is a matter of principle,” Hurchalla said. “If I back down to a billionaire bully, no one will ever be able to walk up to a podium in a public meeting or send an email to a public official or speak to a commissioner again.

“I have two grandchildren who tell me they’re very proud of me. There is nothing in the world like having your tall grandson come home from college and hug you and tell you that he’s proud of you for not giving in or giving up.”


How a government agency is trying to stop residents demanding records

Palm Beach Post, by Kimberly Miller, March 23, 2018

The public steward of South Florida’s water supply is taking extreme measures to keep secret the reasons behind a multimillion-dollar settlement while embroiling more than a dozen unwitting citizens in a battle over public records.

South Florida Water Management District officials hired two private legal teams with taxpayer money to fight the release of a transcript from an August meeting regarding a 50-year deal with the billionaire-backed mining company Lake Point Restoration.

The months-long litigious affair began with a simple public records request under Florida’s decades-old Sunshine Law — a statute heralded nationwide as a tool to keep governments honest.

Instead of a traditional response of yes or no, the district sued the non-profit organization that made the request. The lawsuit triggered a cascade of identical demands from disgruntled soccer moms, retirees, activists and the titan of Treasure Coast environmentalism, Maggy Hurchalla.

Related: Powerhouse cast embroiled in Florida tale of taxpayer loss.

Now the district wants the non-profit agency and Hurchalla to hand over all of their Lake Point-related communications and personal emails to and from the 16 other residents who requested the same documents. The idea is to find out if they were trying to trick the district into a violation of the Sunshine Law rather than simply trying to hold the agency accountable.

First Amendment experts call the district’s threat to subpoena the communications of private citizens bullying — an overreach by a public agency using taxpayer dollars to cow the public from digging deeper. If Hurchalla and the non-profit agency don’t turn over the documents, the district said in court papers it would slap all the other citizens with a subpoena demanding all communications between themselves and “anyone else” that relate in any way to their Lake Point request.

“They are trying to scare the pants off people,” said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. “Why someone makes a public records request and the purpose of the request is none of the government’s business, so they are just doing this to intimidate people.”

Water management attorney Brian Accardo disagrees. He said the legal maneuver is a push to protect the district from nefarious public records requests made solely to initiate court action and force the district to pay attorneys fees for the other side.

“This onslaught of requests may have been to cause the district to slip up in how it handles records, or maybe we would miss a request, or perhaps it was just to start a queue of folks who are attempting to collect fees in the event the court were to ultimately rule we were to turn over the records,” Accardo said during a March 8 district board meeting.

The requests focus on the transcripts of closed-door meetings held by the district to discuss Lake Point litigation. State law allows closed meetings as long as transcripts are kept and made publicly available upon the conclusion of the litigation.

The district released four transcripts, some of them dating back years, but held on to a fifth, claiming it wasn’t public because the only thing discussed was mediation and the mediated settlement agreement. Florida law allows mediations to remain confidential in some circumstances.

That meeting, on Aug. 23, led to a change in the district’s legal position: Afterward, the district dropped its fight against the mining concern and agreed to settle.

“In light of the exhaustive briefings and detailed discussions that we just went through in the attorney-client session, I certainly am confident if we went forward with trial we would have a good chance of prevailing,” board Vice Chairman Jim Moran said publicly after the closed Aug. 23 meeting. “But when you take into consideration the potential ramifications of that and what’s in the best interest of the taxpayer and district, I think it’s in our best interest to accept this agreement.”

More assertive district

The public records fight through mid-February has cost the district about $76,000 in fees to private law firms, a small amount but a noteworthy expense for a district that has been in cost-cutting mode since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011.Under Scott, who appoints district board members, sharp cuts resulted in layoffs and, in 2015, the ousting of the district’s executive director over a slight property tax increase. In his place, the district hired Pete Antonacci, the governor’s former counsel, who took a more aggressive stand against critics.

In public statements and emails, the district challenged environmentalists’ requests and went on the attack to condemn a federal agency, a scientist for a watchdog organization and activists.

Antonacci left in July, appointed to head Enterprise Florida. His replacement, Ernie Marks, came on three weeks before the Aug. 23 settlement with Lake Point.

Related: Criminal charges rare in public records violations.

Hurchalla’s attorney, Virginia Sherlock, called the district’s push to turn over communications regarding Lake Point a “disgraceful path of harassing and intimidating private citizens.”

Sherlock said it’s particularly concerning considering Lake Point won a $4.4 million judgment against Hurchalla in February based on emails she sent to Martin County commissioners about the project.

“The subpoena for communications appears to be a thinly veiled attempt by the district to assist the operators of the Lake Point rock-mining operation in setting up future litigation against citizens who may have expressed objections or concerns about the project,” Sherlock wrote in a March 6 court filing. Lake Point has piggybacked on the district’s request for Hurchalla’s emails.

Accardo said he’s just putting Hurchalla on notice that she “needs to play this one straight, as 16 other people can be called upon to provide information regarding” her motives.

The legal drama is likely escalated by the rancorous history between the water management district, Martin County, Hurchalla and Lake Point, which is co-owned by the deep-pocketed George Lindemann Jr., an heir to a cellphone and cable TV fortune.

PALM BEACH POST STAFF WRITERLake Point Restoration near Port Mayaca. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Lindemann, a former Wellington resident and one-time Olympic equestrian hopeful, remains dogged by a 1996 prison sentence of 33 months for hiring a hit man to electrocute his show horse for insurance money. It is a history that resurfaced in 2016 as district board members discussed getting out of a contract with Lake Point penned nearly eight years earlier.

“They are, you know, they’re not the most trustworthy folks,” an attorney said about Lake Point in an August 2016 meeting, according to one of the transcripts turned over by the district. “I mean, the principal of Lake Point, he has a criminal record right? If you all didn’t know, he had been convicted of insurance fraud for killing his horse.”

A Lindemann spokeswoman defended him, saying the conviction was more than 20 years ago and he has since helped environmental efforts. Last year, he donated 1,000 acres worth $8.27 million in Tennessee to be part of the Great Eastern hiking trail. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation named Lindemann conservationist of the year in May.

50,000 tons of rubble

In 2008, Lake Point Partners paid $47.7 million for about 2,200 acres in far western Martin County that had been slated for a polo community.

When the housing market crashed, the horse community was canned, and Lake Point came up with a plan to mine the land and donate the holes after 20 years to the water district for storage and treatment areas for Lake Okeechobee overflow.

To make the mining more palatable, and get approval to pull rubble from property that once grew sugar cane, Martin County was courted to join an agreement that would allow the mining. The selling point was that Lake O water would be diverted from the fragile St. Lucie Estuary, where it can cause harmful algae to grow. Martin County also would get a public park out of the deal.

The deal went sour, in part, after concerns were raised about the project by Hurchalla. Lake Point sued the district and Martin County in 2013. It also sued Hurchalla, sister to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, saying she sent misleading emails about the project to Martin County commissioners that caused the company millions of dollars in losses.

A bitter five-year legal fight ensued.

Related: Criminal charges filed in Martin County public records case.

In an April 2017 meeting, the district’s attorney told board members 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.”

Four months later, after the Aug. 23 closed-door session, the district begrudgingly accepted a settlement that forces it to buy 50,000 tons of rubble annually from Lake Point for 15 years, and extends Lake Point’s hold on the land from 20 to 50 years.

The settlement seemed an “abrupt change in position” to Everglades Law Center attorney Lisa Interlandi. She filed the initial public records request on Oct. 4 for transcripts of the district’s closed sessions concerning Lake Point.

State law requires public bodies to provide public records unless they can cite an exemption in Florida law that allows them to withhold the records. If denied, the person making the request can sue.

But the district didn’t do that. Accardo said it wanted to be proactive, filing the lawsuit against the Everglades Law Center so a judge would decide whether the records should be released, and both sides would pay their own court costs.

Frank LoMonte, professor and director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said it’s a bad precedent to set.

“It’s not better to be on the offense because they are spending the public’s money,” LoMonte said. “You are running up the public’s tab unnecessarily when you could just wait and see if you get sued.”

Judge favors district

Two months later, Hurchalla made the same records request as the Everglades Law Center. In court documents, the district said her request was made for “improper purposes” and asked that she pay its attorneys’ fees and costs.

Between Dec. 19 and Dec. 21, another 16 nearly identical requests came in.

The district released four transcripts of Lake Point-related attorney-client sessions in January. But the district claims the Aug. 23 meeting held immediately before the settlement vote is not a public record because the entire transcript is “confidential mediation communication.”

LoMonte doesn’t buy it.

“You don’t just get to label something a mediation,” LoMonte said. “If they are literally saying the closed session is actual mediation, there’s no way it should be exempt.”

But Circuit Court Judge William Roby sided with the district in a March 6 hearing, agreeing the meeting was exempt from public records law.

Marcy LaHart, the attorney for the Everglades Law Center, plans to appeal.

“The proposition that the citizens are never allowed to know the basis that the water management district accepted this settlement on is absurd,” LaHart said. “It is contrary to Florida’s long history requiring transparency of their government officials.”

The district is not seeking attorneys’ fees from the 16 individuals who made the public records request after Hurchalla’s and they have not been added as defendants to the litigation. But the district still wants their private communications with Hurchalla and the Everglades Law Center.

The district also is demanding Everglades Law Center’s membership list, including all contact information for members, and any communication between the center and its members regarding the Lake Point lawsuit.

The reason the district wants the communications is tied to a 2017 amendment to Florida’s Sunshine Law. The amendment says if a judge decides public records are being requested for a frivolous purpose, or to cause an agency to violate the law, the person who made the request can be forced to pay attorneys fees.

Before that, the law required public agencies to cover attorneys’ fees if it was found to have not properly turned over the records. Local governments complained unscrupulous groups had turned the Sunshine Law into a profitable business model based on attorneys’ fees.

Who wants to know

Petersen, of the First Amendment Foundation, doubts the citizens who made the Lake Point-related requests did so to cheat the district.

“There is nothing frivolous about the requests, they are just trying to get the record,” she said.

Paul Laura, chairman of the Treasure Coast Democratic Environmental Caucus, is one of the people who requested the public records. He said he doesn’t trust the district and is concerned it is “hiding” the transcript from the Aug. 23 meeting.

Laura was unaware his emails were the subject of a legal request, but said there has been “very little, if any” communication about Lake Point with Hurchalla or the Everglades Law Center.

Stuart resident Laurence Key said his records request was a copy of Laura’s. He made it because the previous requests had been “stonewalled by our fine public servants.”

Kathleen Saigh, of Palm City, pointed to Stuart resident Laurie Prim as the motivator of her request.

Prim said she may be responsible for some of the requests because she tries to educate friends about environmental issues and often suggests they use her template when communicating with public officials.

“My motivation is that I am really, truly furious that big-monied companies are railroading our small town,” said Prim, of Stuart. “I have no agenda. I’m just a mom who is not afraid to speak out.”


Everglades hero hit with $4.3 million judgment in billionaire’s lawsuit

Palm Beach Post, by Kimberly Miller, February 19, 2018

It was a showdown with Florida flair — a Martin County business with billionaire backing versus a 77-year-old environmentalist with a constitution as tough as Dade County Pine.

For eight days, the case of mining company Lake Point Restoration against storied Everglades protector Maggy Hurchalla played out in front of a jury.

Was their conflict that of a company wronged by a conservationist’s influence over public officials, or a well-heeled entrepreneur with a grudge and the money to satisfy it in a prolonged legal rumble?

On Wednesday, the six-member jury sided with Lake Point, charging Hurchalla with interfering in an agreement between the company and Martin County, and levying a $4.3 million judgment against her.

Stuart environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla stands behind Florida Oceanographic Society Executive Director Mark Perry on January 16, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner and sister to the late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, said she will appeal.

“I’m disappointed,” she said leaving the courtroom. “I think the judge made some very bad rulings of law.”

For Lake Point, the ruling is a third victory in a 5-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.

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 George Lindemann Jr., a one-time Wellington resident and heir to a cell phone and cable TV fortune.

Lake Point’s attorney, Ethan Loeb, said $22 million in damages was done to the company in a labyrinthine story line that accuses Hurchalla of lying to Martin County commissioners about the destruction of wetlands in an effort to kill a 2009 agreement that allowed for the mining as part of a public works project with the water management district.

Stockpiling of rock and supply bonds had to be posted to convince buyers of Lake Point’s viability during strife with Martin County commissioners that Loeb accused Hurchalla of starting.

With $12 million from Martin County, a deal with the district that Loeb said is valued at $6 million, and the $4.3 million from Hurchalla — the debt is settled.Stockpiling of rock and supply bonds had to be posted to convince buyers of Lake Point’s viability during strife with Martin County commissioners that Loeb accused Hurchalla of starting.

But Hurchalla doesn’t have $4.3 million, and Loeb said it wasn’t just about the money.

“The only person here refusing to accept responsibility for what she did is sitting right over there,” Loeb said during his closing arguments gesturing toward Hurchalla. “She was on a mission to stop this project and gratuitously harm business.”

Hurchalla maintained through the trial that she was exercising her first amendment right to free speech, contacting her elected officials with concerns about a project that was getting attention after the company made a pitch in 2011 to convey water from reservoirs on its land to a drought-stricken West Palm Beach — a move that was not part of the agreement.

The emails, sent to commissioners’ personal and government accounts, were the subject of public records violation lawsuit against Martin County that Lake Point won a year ago, receiving $371,801 in legal fees.

Two Martin County commissioners and a former commissioner are facing charges related to violating open records laws in relation to the Lake Point case.

“You must decide if sending emails to county commissioners was a proper method of exercising Mrs. Hurchalla’s right to free speech,” said Hurchalla’s attorney, Virginia Sherlock, who emphasized that Hurchalla is a private citizen not responsible for keeping Martin County officials in compliance with open records laws. “There is not a single shred of evidence that Maggy acted out of malice or ill will toward Lake Point.”

The Lake Point saga dates to 2008 when the company bought about 2,200 acres in far western Martin County near Lake Okeechobee that was slated for a polo community. The purchase price was a $47.7 million. The current total market value for tax purposes is about $23.6 million, according to the Martin County property appraiser.

When the housing market crashed, the horse community was canned, and Lake Point came up with a plan to mine the land and then donate the holes after 20 years to the South Florida Water Management District for storage and treatment areas for Lake Okeechobee overflow. It became a public works project.

To make the mining more palatable, and get approval to pull rip-rap from property that once grew sugarcane, Martin County was courted by the district officials and Lindemann to join an agreement that would allow the mining. The selling point was that Lake O water would be diverted from the fragile St. Lucie Estuary. Martin County also would get a public park out of the deal.

While Lake Point has pursued the case against Hurchalla since 2013, Loeb said the company never wanted for it to go all the way to litigation.

“We always wanted her to retract her statements,” Loeb said.

Hurchalla has been steadfast in defending her comments to commissioners and her claims that wetlands were destroyed.

Last week, 19th Judicial Circuit Judge William Roby, who oversaw the trial, said if she would just apologize to Lake Point, they would likely drop the case, she said.

In a closed-door meeting with Hurchalla and her attorneys, Roby showed her an apology letter he had drafted and urged her to sign it.

She refused.

“If I lost or gave up, I didn’t see how any resident could feel safe telling their county commissioners that they questioned a contract or a developer’s proposal,” Hurchalla said in a written account of the meeting. “I told Judge Roby I appreciated his kindness in trying to help me but I felt that the principle was too important to walk away.”

Leaving the courtroom Wednesday, Loeb said the jury sent a message.

“You can’t lie, that’s the message, you’re not allowed to lie,” Loeb said.