This column is a vehicle for a number of items in a bits-and-pieces, strictly opinion, sometimes irreverent format. Look for "Just Sayin'" to run once a week in this spot.
Denials Are Over for Martin County Commission's Public Records Sinners
Martin County commissioners' public records sins finally came home to roost. Three commissioners, Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott were caught red-handed in a web of lies, denying they conducted public business on private email accounts, hiding, even attempting to destroy records to which the public is entitled.
This week, after four years of trying, rock mining company Lake Point LLC -- which sued Martin County for backing out of a contract -- won a major, but under-the-radar public records lawsuit.
Arbitration ended Feb. 9. In his order, mediator Howard Googe found that “... a pattern and practice of non-compliance and lack of diligence by the county and certain county commissioners in preserving and protecting public records … ” as required by the state's public records law, entitled Lake Point to attorney fees and costs -- excluding those associated with Lake Point's appeal -- thus awarding Lake Point its fees as of Dec. 31, 2016, in the amount of $371,801.75.
Think about the hard slog of getting this decision for a moment. If Lake Point were an ordinanry Floridian looking for justice in public records, could he/she hold out for years of lawyers' fees and court appearances? Hundreds of thousands of dollars are nothing to public officials in hiding because the deep pockets that pay for it aren't their own. Most people would have dropped the suit back in 2013, and I'm sure that's what these commissioners were counting on. For Lake Point, in the end, it got to be the principle of the thing.
The case against the county and former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, on whom the original lawsuit is based (see my 2013 column), is still pending. If successful, it could expose the county to millions in additional fees and damages.
“Based upon the totality of the evidence, testimony and case law presented,” Googe wrote in his order, “I find that it is unfortunate that these claims have resulted in years of litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and costs to both parties.”
Googe included in his award to Lake Point the public records from Commissioner Sarah Heard's private Yahoo email account, which she testified had been “hacked” early in 2013, destroying eight years of emails and all her contacts.
The arbitrator's order found Heard's testimony regarding the loss of her emails to be “suspicious, bizarre and less than credible.”
As reported by Martin County Currents newspaper, neither the county's digital forensics expert nor Lake Point's forensics expert found evidence of a third-party breach of the personal computer that Heard provided for the forensics examination, which would account for a loss of data, according to the expert's report.
Read Mary Ellen Klas' story in Friday's Miami Herald for a recounting of the instances of public records abuse by commissioners in Martin County, and for a detailed look at the Lake Point case. Read particularly the interview with First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Barbara Petersen, who says of the case, "I think this rises to criminal violations ..."
If Petersen is right, that these violations are "criminal," isn't it time to call in Bruce Colton, the district's state attorney? This is, after all, the second case of public records abuse since 2010 -- and certainly more blatant, more egregious than the first.
Republican Recklessness in Tallahassee
Government suing government? What's wrong with this picture?
House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed a lawsuit in county court last week against Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie -- both men good, card-carrying Republicans, incidentally -- claiming Delacenserie violated state law when he signed a $700 million contract that was bigger than it should have been.
Never mind the merits of the case. That's not what I care about here.
As a taxpayer, I feel violated. I pay the bills for this nonsense and so do you. Case in point: Delacenserie felt the need to retain attorney Barry Richard. Cost: $60,000 if the case goes to trial.
Taxpayers are losers no matter who wins.
And as a Republican -- watching a Republican speaker of the House sue a Republican-appointed lottery secretary -- this whole soap opera boggles my mind.
I have to ask Speaker Richard Corcoran, since when is a Republican leader's first resort turning to the liberal Florida judiciary to wash the Legislature's laundry? We have plenty to whine about in Florida's activist court system at other times, why are we clutching it to our bosom now?
This is Republicans acting like Democrats -- the folks who love lawsuits.
For lo these past 50 years I've been told Republicans have better ways than filing lawsuits to resolve conflicts. Republicans settle their differences around a table, talk through their issues. We arbitrate, hash it out, get a little bloody if we have to, but we come out clean on the other side.
Republican/conservative Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott, another staunch Republican/conservative both cooked up media ads to batter each other -- Corcoran trying to kill a big part of the governor's legacy, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, and Scott using some of his $7 million Let's Get to Work war chest to slam Corcoran as a career politician, job killer and purveyor of "fake news."
I remember a handful of cases of government suing government over the years, but always over tall-order issues, issues that involve an interpretation of the Constitution. Nothing as nit-picking as we're seeing here.
The last real government-on-government lawsuit I remember was a policy shift, a priority of then-Senate President Ken Pruitt, to specify that lawmakers, not the Board of Governors set tuition. Pruitt said the Constitution made it so; the Governors disagreed and sued him. The lawsuit went on for five years and ultimately was decided in the Legislature's favor.
Compare that issue to the Republicans' infighting of today.
As the progressive press has observed, the kind of arrogance we're seeing now can only happen in a party that won 17 of the last 18 elections for governor and cabinet and nearly 80 percent of marginal legislative seats since 2002. You see that, and I guess you think it's going to last forever.
I was reminded the other day by a lobbyist who has been around Tallahassee a long time how bad it was in the old days, in the 1990s, before the Republicans were in the majority. "Most of these GOP lawmakers weren't around then. They don't know how awful it was to be in the minority party," he said. "If they did, they wouldn't be doing their darndest to screw it all up."
My Couldn't-Agree-More Quote of the Week
" ... a sign that Democrats are such an afterthought in FL that Republicans can disarticulate each other without fear of the GOP losing power" -- Politico's Marc Caputo on Twitter, following his own tweet on the Richard Corcoran-Rick Scott feud.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith