STUART — The trial in a spectacular lawsuit brought by developer Lake Point against famed environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla started in earnest in a Stuart courtroom today with the opening arguments.
Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb fired the first salvo by warning the eight jurors they’d hear a lot about the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution guaranteeing the right of free speech in the coming days.
Yet, Loeb said, freedom to speak one’s mind doesn’t mean anyone has the right “to lie and harm a business.”
The 77-year-old Hurchalla, sister of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, could be on the hook for millions in damages, money that Lake Point claims it lost when Hurchalla talked at least three Martin County commissioners into cancelling a contract that would’ve allowed Lake Point to exploit a rock mine on the banks of Lake Okeechobee.
Current Commissioners Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard as well as ex-Commissioner Anne Scott are facing criminal charges over their email exchanges with Hurchalla about Lake Point. Each is charged with misdemeanor failure to produce public records because they allegedly failed to surrender copies of those emails to Lake Point lawyers. Their trials are scheduled to take place by year’s end.
Meanwhile, Loeb said Hurchalla lied “to influence her friends” on the commission about the destruction of wetlands by Lake Point so that they would stop an already-approved partnership with the county.
And for that, Loeb said, she should be held accountable.
Loeb also introduced Jamie Rusbridge, general manager of the Lake Point mine, and announced jurors would also hear from Ed Weinberg, a wetlands expert expected to say that, contrary to Hurchalla’s claims, the wetlands on Lake Point’s land were preserved.
Loeb also tried to demystify an otherwise-complicated deal that Lake Point hammered in 2009 with the county.
Loeb told of the creation of lakes in the open-air mine to treat water, and how the lime rock mined at the site would be used for large-scale projects set to benefit the public, including the much-needed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
Maggy Hurchalla “knows how to use words, knows how to get people’s attention,” Loeb said, but she “unconcerned about the consequences.”
And the consequences, Loeb said, amounted to $22 million in lost profits for Lake Point, and he estimated Hurchalla’s share at $4 million.
When her turn came Stuart attorney Virginia Sherlock, who is defending Hurchalla, argued that evidence would show Maggy Hurchalla told the truth about Lake Point.
Sherlock, a personal friend of Hurchalla’s, described the defendant as a “dedicated, determined advocate for Martin County and the environment.”
“Read her emails, hear her questions,” Sherlock said. “She is and was a private citizen. She just wanted answers to her questions (from commissioners).”
Hurchalla, Sherlock added, “just wanted Lake Point to keep the promises that it made, to do what it was supposed to do.”