STUART — Environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla was grilled by lawyers for nearly four hours today in the waning moments of the trial in a lawsuit brought against her by developers who claim she interfered with a deal they’d hammered with Martin County.
The 77-year-old sister of Bill Clinton era U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno eventually admitted to deleting emails she’d sent to several Martin County commissioners’ private addresses where she appeared to coach them on how to get rid of a contract the county had signed with Lake Point, the owner of 2,000 acres in the western confines of the county.
Lake Point attorney Ethan Loeb rattled the Everglades restoration specialist Hurchalla when he forced her to admit she had not released all of the late 2012-early 2013 email exchanges with Commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding and then-Commissioner Anne Scott, making it look to the jury like she was hiding information. (Heard, Fielding and Scott, by the way, are facing criminal trials later this years after being arrested on misdemeanor counts of failing to release public records to Lake Point.)
Closing arguments in the tortious interference Hurchalla trial are scheduled for tomorrow morning, and the jury is expected to begin deliberations in the afternoon.
Lake Point claims Hurchalla spread lies about the company’s mining operation to force the commissioner to shut it down while Hurchalla claims she was simply a concerned citizen asking questions about a deal she didn’t agree with.
Facing a $4 million-claim and no hope to pay for it, Hurchalla took the stand in her own defense.
During direct examination by one of her lawyers, Stuart’s Howard Heims, jurors learned about Hurchalla’s life-long work on environmental protection in the Everglades as well as her 20 years as county commissioner.
Heims, who managed to lull several jurors into a near stupor, also questioned her about the meaning of the emails she sent the trio.
Hurchalla said she believed Lake Point was destroying wetlands and she was concerned about the contract that would allow Lake Point to store and clean dirty Lake Okeechobee water then sell some of it to municipalities, including West Palm Beach.
Hurchalla emailed the entire commission and individual commissioners on days before meetings where Lake Point’s deal would come up in early 2013.
This morning, Lake Point part-owner George Lindemann Jr. testified he watched in 2013 as county staff went from being partners keen on getting the deal done to working against Lake Point and issuing it code violations.
“They turned on us on a dime,” billionaire philanthropist Lindemann said. “Commissioners started talking about how the contract wasn’t worth the paper it was on. We were shocked.”
In cross examination, Loeb pounced on Hurchalla and asked why she emailed some of her comments to the commissioners’ public accounts, then different notes to Heard, Fielding and Scott’s private accounts. And he eventually had her admit she didn’t release all of the emails Lake Point had requested, including a series to sent Scott, because she deleted some.
“That’s perfectly legal,” Hurchalla countered.
Loeb also tore into her for the fact she didn’t forward the critical emails to Lindemann and other Lake Point executives so that they could defend the project.
“If I had to do that (forward emails to concerned parties) with all the issues I fight for, I wouldn’t have a life,” she said.
Still, Hurchalla became so rattled by Loeb that Judge William Roby had to ask her in three separate occasions to answer Loeb’s questions instead of going on tangents.
Loeb also pointed out half a dozen witnesses called to the courtroom over the past week testified Lake Point never destroyed wetlands. Yet Huchalla continued to claim they did, despite the fact she visited the property and found no wrongdoing.
The trial stems from a larger breach of contract action Lake Point brought against Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District.
Both SFWMD and Martin County settled with Lake Point.
Hurchalla was the only defendant who refused to settle.