STUART — Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard was charged with failure to respond to public records requests this afternoon in Stuart.
Heard, who is in her fourth term on the county commission, pleaded not guilty and asked for a trial.
The charge, failure of a public official to respond to a public records request, is rarely used in Florida. It is designed to prosecute public officials who refuse or drag their feet when members of the public and the media demand records.
Heard’s charging document cites one instance of alleged wrongdoing, in January 2013. The court file did not contain details.
Sarah Heard was to be arraigned at the Martin County courthouse about 2 p.m. The county’s justice system, however, circled the wagons.
With members of the local media gathering, Heard was allowed by Judge Curtis Disque to meet with her lawyer for more than an hour in the empty courtroom after it was closed to the public.
The media were told shortly before 4 p.m. that the hearing was cancelled after Heard pleaded not guilty in writing.
We called the judge’s chamber to ask how he could ban the press from sitting in his courtroom for a case about government secrecy but he has yet to return the call.
“It’s not a criminal charge,” said Barbara Kibbey Wagner, Heard’s lawyer. The firm, headed by Kibbey Wagner’s dad Richard, mostly represents hardcore criminals, including killers and rapists. “It’s a non-criminal infraction. There’s no jail time involved. At worst, it’s a $500 fine.”
Kibbey Wagner added that even if she is found guilty, Heard cannot be forced to resign her elected position.
Sarah Heard vanished from the courthouse without taking questions but we caught up with her during her daily brisk walk near her Port Salerno home alongside her husband Jeffrey.
Heard briefly stopped to talk about the charge.
“I still don’t know what this is about,” she said. “I don’t know more now than I did this morning. All I know is that I wasn’t arrested.”
The charge may be the result of an ongoing grand jury investigation into the handling of public records by county officials. A source close to the proceedings said other current and former commissioners could end up being charged.
Heard, who is in her fourth term on the county commission, is accused of failing to surrender emails she may have sent to, and received from, fellow commissioners, county staff and environmentalist Maggie Hurchalla, the sister of the recently-deceased former US Attorney General Janet Reno.
The emails were requested by development company Lake Point.
Lake Point wanted to see all communications about a deal it had reached with the county and other government entities pertaining to the mining of land near Lake Okeechobee.
With its request, Lake Point was out to prove that commissioners were illegally communicating and discussing public business in private, and conspiring with members of the public against the company’s interests.
It took several years for Heard to produce some of her emails. When she was asked to show emails from her private Yahoo account, she claimed it had been hacked. In a civil lawsuit, several witnesses testified Heard was lying.
The fight between the county and Lake Point, which is partly controlled by the family of Miami billionaire businessman and arts patron George Lindemann, started nearly 10 years ago when a deal to exploit the environmentally sensitive land collapsed.
So far, the county has lost one civil lawsuit over the public records and was ordered to pay $500,000 of Lake Point’s legal bill.
And Sarah Heard and the commission voted last month to settle a second lawsuit, for breach of contract. Depending on how to calculate the loss to taxpayers, the county may end up having to pay more than $25 million to Lake Point. Earlier today, the commission voted to borrow money to pay some of the settlement.
Hurchalla was at the courtroom to support her friend Heard.
“This (the charge) is nothing more than retribution for Sarah voting against settling with Lake Point,” Hurchalla said. “This is what happens to a brave commissioner doing the right thing.”
Lake Point lawyer Ethan Loeb said in a phone call from California he didn’t know if the charge against Heard resulted from the civil cases he worked on.