STUART — Martin County officials accused of hiding public records, it seems, aren’t much for showing themselves in public.
Two sitting county commissioners and a former member of the elected board chose not to appear at an arraignment today in a Stuart court and instead sent their high-profile lawyers to face the music.
After a five-minute hearing, Judge Curtis Disque set the cases for trials.
Commissioner Sarah Heard, the target of a non-criminal charge of interfering with the release of county records, has a Feb. 19 trial date. Barbara Kibbey Wagner, Heard’s lawyer, was told to prepare of a week-long jury trial despite the fact she only faces a $500-fine at most. Heard pleaded not guilty.
And the lawyers for Commissioner Ed Fielding and former Commissioner Anne Scott, each charged with two misdemeanor counts of failure by a public official to permit inspection of public records, were told to prepare for a Dec. 10, 2018 jury trial that also could take up to one week.
Both pleaded not guilty and face up to a year in prison.
We knocked on Fielding’s door deep in the underbrush of Stuart’s west side and Fielding came out but declined comment. He didn’t answer whether he’d resign rather than being known as a sitting commissioner waiting for a criminal trial.
Scott didn’t appear to be in her beachfront home in the chichi Jupiter Island.
The three politicians are accused of failing to release records requested by developer Lake Point during a heated period of the county’s history when Lake Point owners couldn’t understand why the commission stopped working with them on a deal to mine land near Lake Okeechobee.
Lake Point sued, and the court battles have cost county taxpayers upward of $25 million and forced the county to borrow $12 million to pay for court costs and a settlement approved by the commission.
So far, the accused have not been told exactly why they’re in court. But paperwork filed in the lawsuits show the three were accused of communicating with each other and constituents on private email servers to escape public records laws.
Heard, for example, claimed she was unable to retrieve emails after her Yahoo account was hacked, a claim debunked by expert witnesses called in for the civil case.
The scandal already caused county staff to issue new directives in how officials communicate.
A grand jury meeting in secret for the past two months is believed to have handed down the indictments.
According to several sources familiar with the grand jury proceedings, Heard is believed to be treated differently because the grand jury believes she didn’t realize she was acting illegally.
Fielding and Scott actually had to surrender to authorities in October and were booked, photographed and fingerprinted at the county jail whose budget is controlled by county government.
Kibbey Wagner this morning said the public information requests by Lake Point may have been filed in harassment and for political reasons.
“The grand jury is still convening but we will not be intimidated,” Kibbey Wagner said. “We’re entitled to see evidence and we hope that’ll be soon.”
Lawyers for Fielding and Scott did not comment.