Martin County, already down $371,802 for violating Florida's public records laws, was ordered this week to pay Lake Point rock mine near Lake Okeechobee another $130,107.
It is part of a major public records lawsuit accusing county commissioners of denying they conducted public business on private email accounts, then holding mail back once it had been discovered, and in the case of Commissioner Sarah Heard, destroying the record trail.
In a 19-page ruling filed Sept. 18, Circuit Court Judge William Roby said Lake Point, the company that sued Martin County for allegedly canceling a contract to use land to clean polluted water from Lake Okeechobee, was entitled to its additional attorney fees and costs plus interest of $130,106.67 incurred between Feb. 8 and July 11. (After the county objected to Lake Point's initial claim of an additional $158,281.97, Roby reduced it.)
As public records violations go, this case has been categorized as one of Florida's most egregious. Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said in February it "rises to criminal ... and we’re seeing this as an alarming trend -- cases where governmental officials are using private emails and private common devices in an attempt to avoid disclosure under the public records law.”
Roby's ruling brings the rock mine and restoration project's total award from sanctions against the county for violating public records laws to $501,908. And that's only so far.
“Additionally,” the judge wrote in his Sept. 18 order, “public records that have not been produced may still exist on the private email account of Commissioner Sarah Heard that was recently unlocked by Yahoo!”
Heard has claimed in court testimony that eight years of public records on her personal computer had been deleted due to a hacking event. Arbiter Howard Googe, who wrote the arbitration order filed Feb. 8, said there was “no credible evidence” to substantiate a “hacking event” and subsequent loss of public records.
As of Aug. 1, the date of the court's second hearing on the matter, the county still was in the process of disclosing public records to fulfill Lake Point's 4-year-old public records request, according to court records.
In Florida, citizens have the right to access public records under the state Constitution. The only remedy for non-compliance or a slow response is to award a citizen's attorney fees and costs, including those incurred when litigating over the amount of those fees.
Lake Point is seeking the public records as evidence in their lawsuit for tortious interference against former County Commissioner and environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla, whom Lake Point claims interfered with their county and SFWMD contracts.
Lake Point also filed a breach of contract suit against Martin County, which goes to trial Oct. 16. The South Florida Water Management District settled with Lake Point in August, and are no longer a named party in the suit. However, Martin County has objected to the terms of the SFWMD settlement, and instead of settling itself, has asked the court for a continuance.
Roby will hear the county's arguments for a continuance on Sept. 27 at the Martin County Courthouse at 9:30 a.m. Roby previously told all parties in the case that “no excuses” would be acceptable to delay trial in a case that has dragged on for more than four years. The county's cost in outside attorney fees and costs has exceeded $4 million, according to county records.