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A Big Ol' 'Pants on Fire' for Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman

May 15, 2018 - 6:00am
Maggy Hurchalla, Craig Pittman and George Lindemann Jr.
Maggy Hurchalla, Craig Pittman and George Lindemann Jr.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman undermined the public's trust of venerable news organizations with his May 12 article, “Only in Florida: Battle over water, free speech pits billionaire vs. activist.”

Instead of checking the facts found in court records and legal documents, he took the lies being told to him as truth -- then repeated them as fact. He reinforced the hooey being circulated in underground networks in Martin County by lending it the weight of the Tampa Bay Times.

Apparently, Pittman thought his sources were as credible as his newspaper had been. He made a fatal assumption.

Among Pittman's sources were Janet Reno's sister, Maggy Hurchalla; and another, Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard, an elected official charged with two criminal misdemeanors -- which Pittman failed to mention -- in addition to the civil infraction for public records violations that Pittman reported. She goes to trial in December.

Barbara Clowdus
Barbara Clowdus

The county has already been sanctioned civilly for Heard's (and others') alleged criminal actions to the tune of $502,000, which Pittman also did not report.

We know Pittman didn't read the Lake Point Restoration plan, because the original agreement counters much of what both he and the experts he consulted claim. Had he, or his numerous experts, truly read the plan, his story would have been different.

The South Florida Water Management District was responsible for the operation and management of the 2008 Lake Point project, part of the St. Lucie Watershed Protection Program. Not Lake Point.

It was at the District's “sole and absolute discretion” to move water out of the C-44 Canal (not Lake Okeechobee) to Lake Point's property and to improve water quality flows from Lake Point's property into the St. Lucie River estuary AND into the L-8 Canal to meet the region's water needs.

The plan would follow state law. It was not illegal, as Pittman inferred.

Pittman completely missed the strategic location of that land. The C-44 Canal is north of the property. The L-8 Canal is south of the property. He missed the fact that the District had wanted the property but could not buy it. He missed the fact that control of the project was by the District, which would ultimately own the land -- without spending one taxpayer dime.

He missed the fact that the District had the discretion, by state law, to approve the sale of water, if it is in the public interest by permit only. That's a crucial fact.

Even when Lake Okeechobee is not discharging millions of gallons of water into the St. Lucie River, the watershed drains more than twice that amount into the C-44 Canal. That water goes out to sea.

Lake Point's 2008 plan would divert some of that water onto its land and clean it with no taxpayer investment in the project.

If Lake Point had a buyer for the cleaned water -- which never materialized -- would that not be in the public's best interest?

The plan was not, as Pittman wrote, to sell water that Lake Point “found” on its land. The water would come from the C-44. The plan would not “upend” state water policy.

The commission majority wanted to cancel the contract because Hurchalla said its wetlands were being destroyed and that Lake Point was selling Martin County water illegally. Those were the lies that Hurchalla told Commissioners Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott to repeat, all of which were later disproved in court.

They did what Hurchalla ordered. The county staff did what Hurchalla and her attorney, Virginia Sherlock, ordered. Sherlock even had her own desk in the county's legal department. Hurchalla had total control, which has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

It had everything to do with the corruption that comes with absolute power.

Yes, the 2016 election shifted the power on the Martin County Commission. The people threw out former-judge Commissioner Anne Scott because she neglected to reveal that she had more than one private email account with private emails from Hurchalla telling her what to do.

Circuit Court Judge Shields McManus called her actions “unlawful.”

Pittman also was dead wrong about the new commissioner. The campaign that changed the dynamics of the 2016 commission was not funded by Lake Point contributions. That was another lie, reported as fact.

Hurchalla's claim that wetlands were being destroyed at Lake Point was refuted as far back as 2012 by Martin County Ecosystem Restoration Director Deb Drum who replied in a public email directly to Heard (who relayed it to Hurchalla) that “no wetlands were destroyed at Lake Point.” Pittman could have checked the record, but he did not.

We know Hurchalla's legacy as an environmental icon is on the line as she faces the real prospect of losing all her financial assets, because of a lie that she's refused to retract, a lie that even her own expert's testimony unexpectedly refuted in court.

Lake Point's wetlands were restored, not destroyed.

Do Hurchalla's assets truly consist only of “two kayaks and an aging Toyota”? Not according to court records, which reveal a Bank of America total of around $60,000 and two safe deposit boxes. It also shows nearly $250,000 in a Merrill Lynch account of cash and investments, plus ownership of six parcels of land in Martin County. She has at least two other investment accounts, one at TDAmeriTrade and another at The GMS Group, plus three crowd-sourcing accounts, according to court records.

Despite the cash in her accounts, the county paid her court costs for more than three dozen evidentiary hearings and dozens of depositions, because she complained in court that she could not afford to pay the fees.

The county attorney said Martin County would pay them, which they did for four years, until he was asked by a new county commissioner to find another job. She is not a penniless environmentalist, as Pittman portrayed her.

A six-person jury looked at the evidence and found Hurchalla guilty of tortious interference with Lake Point's contracts. They did not buy the argument that Hurchalla was merely exercising her First Amendment rights.

They found her liable for $4.3 million in damages to Lake Point's business. The first appeal has already been dismissed but will be refiled. Meanwhile, the interest on her debt to Lake Point will continue to grow at around $250,000 annually.

One fact that Pittman got right was that George Lindemann Jr. went to prison two decades ago for the act most people cannot imagine -- having a non-performing race horse killed by a professional hit man.

Lindemann was the 24-year-old son of a multi-billionaire at the time with genuine potential as an Olympic equestrian. His had lived a life of privilege.

It was a convoluted tale, involving a girl and others, yet despite his family's wealth, Lindemann took responsibility, repaid the insurance company and served more than a year in prison. We believe Pittman when he described Lindemann's time in prison as “traumatizing.”

The experience also was transformational. Lindemann is now a patron of the arts in the Miami area and strengthened important environmental causes throughout the U.S., being named last year as Conservationist of the Year by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

He had given far more to the Florida Oceanographic Society in Martin County prior to the litigation than he ever had to any political campaign. He remains a major contributor to the Florida Audubon Society, the president of which is another Lake Point Restoration partner, Jud Laird.

Laird worked quietly alongside Eric Draper to get Amendment 1 passed two years ago and to get the SB 10 bill passed last year to build the EAA reservoir, in addition to all the other work by Audubon throughout the state.

The Lake Point Restoration project was one that could have been a win-win project for both private and public interests. All Hurchalla accomplished was to hurt a legitimate business, derail a good plan to benefit the St. Lucie River, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

We dare say that's not the legacy she intended.

Barbara Clowdus, editor and publisher of Martin County Currents, has been covering the Lake Point story since the last quarter of 2012.


READ MORE FROM SUNSHINE STATE NEWS

SFWMD Plagued by Martin County's Public Records, Legal Shenanigans

Ruling in Hurchalla Lake Point Case Delayed by Yet Another Hearing

Comments

I oppose assault weapons on the street too. The problem is that the AR based platforms are not assault weapons. There are a lot of difference between assault weapons and the sport models on the streets. Maybe we should ban the evil Black plastic Spork too. You know the black assault spork. You should really get some fact before lipping off on the comments. They are NOT assault weapons junior. And you can have mine when you can come and take it. Period. What part of shall not be infringed on do you people not get. Now get back in your safe space and hush. And for the record Gen. Patton is a hero of mine not a Judge.

What I don't understand and maybe someone can explain, but to me all this water farming and selling water has done NOTHING for the river. It still cost me as a tax payer millions of dollars and it just seems to pad the pockets of people like Tom Kenny, the Caulkins , etc. Holding water on there land, but still dumping the lake is stupid, cost millions and does nothing great to clean the water. Does it help a little? Of course, Is it worth the cost NO not in my opinion. How about just buying the land especially at the Kissimmee river basin flood those area's and leave the swamp alone? Why continue paying millions to a select few families that I am sure are politically connected one way or another why? As far as Barbara Clowdus she is nothing but a puppet for these people. She had a failed run for commissioner and nobody knew who she was. Now all of a sudden she is a big writer with money to publish her rag of a paper ever month where did that money come from the few advertiser she has? Please people wake up the next commission race has all pro growth people and Martin County will be totally changed in the next 10 years if something isn't stopped now.

Yes, I agree, it's hard to understand why money is being spent on water farms instead of permanent solutions, at least, it is until you attend a lecture by Dr. Grant Gilmore, or Dr. Brian LaPointe, or Dr. Edie Widder, who all agree that our estuaries are on the cusp of collapse. Sometimes, nature does not heal itself, thus if we lose them, we may be left with "dead zones" that never recover. The urgency calls for short-term solutions, in addition to the long-term permanent ones. On top of that, we have the threat of toxic algae, not only to our estuaries, but to human health as well. I cannot speak for the SFWMD, but I've watched them react with urgency to save our estuaries and those of the Caloosahatchee -- by thinking outside the box. The list of accelerated projects is long, but here's one example. They took over construction of the stormwater treatment areas for the C-44 reservoir -- a federal project -- ruffling some federal feathers, but the STAs are now built and will hold at least some of the water from the C-44 and start cleaning it years before the reservoir itself comes on line. Water farms, like Caulkins, divert some of the water that's killing our estuaries now, perhaps giving them a chance to survive long enough to complete other permanent projects in the northern Everglades that will help reduce the overwhelming flow of polluted water into Lake Okeechobee. When the SFWMD approached him -- and his property manager, Tom Kenny -- with the then-new concept of using the land to store water for a few years. Kenny did not favor the idea, but Caulkins agreed to a pilot project, which exceeded everyone's expectations. Lake Point was unique in the fact that no state or federal funds were required, and although not all the excess water from the C-44 could be diverted, studies showed it would improve the efficiency of the C-44 reservoir project by 20-25 percent. Our water problems are too immense to be solved by such a divided populace. As far as Martin County Currents, you are correct that there's little advertising, which is particularly difficult. It is not supported by anyone, except by own resources, which include a son who is an IT expert and another son who owns a printing press. When there's insufficient funds to print and deliver, then there's no issue that month. Perhaps your comment will bring attention to the fact that Currents needs advertisers! To correct another statement, the paper existed for four years prior to the 2014 commission race. Sarah Heard was running unopposed, which -- after watching the county commission's nonsensical decisions for four years -- was unacceptable. There are good, qualified candidates in the race this time around, none of whom want to turn Martin County into Broward, and neither do they want to reserve Martin County only for the mega-millionaires who can afford 20-acre estates and the taxes that come with them. Yes, Martin County will change drastically over the next 10 years. Be sure to get informed, attend the forums, watch commission meetings. And vote!

right on the button !

Anonymous ?? Too afraid to print your name? Or are you just being dishonest?

Sorry I am not in a position in life where I am a retired, what cop, from NJ now Gator Trapper? John you are a smart guy you really think that where you dump those gator's off is worth the money when the river is still crap? You think when 3rd generation Stacey gets to be your commissioner that things will be better or will the big boys continue to ruin our town and make it like NJ? Come on you ran for commissioner yourself you know better then this, not that I am a fine of the left at all but this county is going to have serious problems soon.

probably afraid of you trapping them there John.

An employee of the Tampa Bay Times doesn't have his facts straight? I'm shocked. I don't know how that rag stays in business.

Gee, perhaps you'll back up that explicit claim of yours that: "He missed the fact that the District had the discretion, by state law, TO APPROVE THE SALE OF WATER, if it is in the public interest by permit only. That's a crucial fact." (CAPITAL emphasis added) . . . . . . . where exactly in Chapter 373, Florida Statutes does it explicitly do that - explicitly allow the district "TO APPROVE THE SALE OF WATER". . . BY PERMIT . . . I am aware of a related, somewhat similar provision for restricted allocation area pilot projects in 373.037(3)(b), FS, that "The governing board may not engage in local water supply distribution or sell water to the pilot project participants," but not one that explicitly states what you state . . . . . . . Florida's water permitting system is based on permitting of reasonable, beneficial uses, not the approval of the actual sale of the water, particularly not one that involves some type of land use based right to the water's ownership . . . . . . . . .

That authority is enumerated in F.S 373.103 Powers which may be vested in the governing board at the department’s discretion.—In addition to the other powers and duties allowed it by law, the governing board of a water management district may be specifically authorized by the department to: (6) Exercise such additional power and authority compatible with this chapter and other statutes and federal laws affecting the district as may be necessary to perform such duties and acts and to decide such matters and dispose of the same as are not specifically defined in or covered by statute. 373.113 Adoption of rules by the governing board.—In administering the provisions of this chapter the governing board has authority to adopt rules pursuant to ss. 120.536(1) and 120.54 to implement provisions of law conferring powers or duties upon it. 373.1401 Management of lands of water management districts.—In addition to provisions contained in s. 373.1391(1) for soil and water conservation districts, the governing board of each water management district may contract with a nongovernmental person or entity, any federal or state agency, a county, a municipality, or any other governmental entity, or environmental nonprofit organization to provide for the improvement, management, or maintenance of any real property owned by or under the control of the district.

Don't understand the word "explicit" do you . . . . . . nor, apparently, the words "sale of water" . . . . . the districts do not approve permits specifically authorizing (or denying) the sale of water . . . . .

You are correct, Frank. The nuance lies between state statute and state water policy. The Lake Point project was not an actual "sale" of water in the truest sense. The purchaser would be paying for water cleaned by a directed flow from off site, (in this case, the C-44 Canal) through bottom-lined limestone pits, across the Lake Point property. (Another fact about the property is that its elevation at the northern end closest to the C-44 Canal is around 26-28 feet and drops to around nine feet at the southern end, near the L-8 canal, allowing the water once pumped onto the Lake Point parcels to flow naturally to the southern end without additional pumping.) The price charged to customers would be based on the cost of the land and infrastructure investment, plus operating costs and profit percentage -- and measured by dollars per gallon of water conveyed. Since it's a per-gallon charge, the project can appear to be merely pumping water off Lake Point land and selling it, which is what detractors claim. That's simply not the case. Even though it was not a direct sale of water "found" on its property, Lake Point still would have had to obtain a SFWMD permit and demonstrate the project was in the public's best interest in order to proceed. If you'd like to explore the state's water policy, I would suggest you contact Cynthia Barnett, Environmental Fellow in Residence at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service. She has written three books on water policy. As the state's population grows, the battles over water will only intensify. Floridians need to be armed with facts.

FYI - in the past, Cynthia contacted me about one of her books . . . . .

Finally, a well written response to what was a truly self-serving article in support of persons lacking integrity and even capable of criminal acts to achieve their self-righteous agenda. I too had been an admirer of Maggy as a MC high school kid in the early 80s when she helped promote managed growth planning in south Florida. Not sure when she went off the rails or why. It’s a sad conclusion to what had been an exemplary record of public service.

Managed Growth - Sustainable Development - are cloaks for CENTRAL PLANNERS - like in communist and socialist systems. How about FREE MARKET approaches? Concept I know but hey - I guess you are right - look to the government for answers direction rules regulations relief money handouts and a guide book for life. Get real. It is sort of like calling a school that has an average of 37% reading literacy an A+ rating. It is designed to make you feel good while your rights get molested.

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