Min­ing firm wins $4.3M judg­ment

Jury rules against Ever­glades pro­tec­tor Maggy Hur­challa.

The Palm Beach Post - - LOCAL & BUSINESS - By Kim­berly Miller Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

STU­ART — It was a show­down with Flor­ida flair — a Martin County busi­ness with bil­lion­aire back­ing ver­sus a 77-year-old environmentalist with a con­sti­tu­tion as tough as Dade County pine.

For eight days, the case of min­ing com­pany Lake Point Restora­tion against sto­ried Ever­glades pro­tec­tor Maggy Hur­challa played out in front of a jury asked to de­cide whether their con­flict was that of a com­pany wronged by a con­ser­va­tion­ist’s in­flu­ence over public of­fi­cials, or a well-heeled en­tre­pre­neur with a grudge and the money to sat­isfy it in a pro­longed le­gal rum­ble.

On Wed­nes­day, the six-mem­ber jury sided with Lake Point, charg­ing Hur­challa with in­ter­fer­ing in an agree­ment be­tween the com­pany and Martin County, and levy­ing a $4.3 mil­lion judg­ment against her.

Hur­challa, a for­mer Martin County com­mis­sioner and sis­ter to the late U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Janet Reno, said she will ap­peal.

“I’m dis­ap­pointed,” she said leav­ing the court­room. “I think the judge made some very bad rul­ings of law.”

For Lake Point, the rul­ing is a third vic­tory in a five-year court bat­tle that cowed the South Flor­ida Water Man­age­ment District and Martin County, both of which set­tled re­lated cases with Lake Point in 2017. The district’s set­tle­ment, ap­proved in Au­gust, prom­ises to buy 50,000 tons of rub­ble annu-

ally from Lake Point’s mine in west­ern Martin County for 15 years. Af­ter 50 years, the district gets the mined land for water treat­ment and stor­age ponds.

Martin County agreed to pay $12 mil­lion for a non-ap­praised, 400-acre piece of land it doesn’t want and write an apol­ogy to Lake Point prin­ci­pals, in­clud­ing Ge­orge Lin­de­mann Jr., a one-time Welling­ton res­i­dent and heir to a cell­phone and ca­ble TV for­tune.

Lake Point’s at­tor­ney, Ethan Loeb, said $22 mil­lion in dam­ages was done to the com­pany in a labyrinthine sto­ry­line that ac­cuses Hur­challa of ly­ing to Martin County com­mis­sion­ers about the de­struc­tion of wet­lands in an ef­fort to kill a 2009 agree­ment that al­lowed for the min­ing as part of a public works project with the water man­age­ment district.

Stock­pil­ing of rock and sup­ply bonds had to be posted to con­vince buy­ers of Lake Point’s vi­a­bil­ity dur­ing strife with Martin County com­mis­sion­ers that Loeb ac­cused Hur­challa of start­ing.

With $12 mil­lion from Martin County, a deal with the district that Loeb said is val­ued at $6 mil­lion, and the $4.3 mil­lion from Hur­challa — the debt is set­tled.

But Hur­challa doesn’t have $4.3 mil­lion, and Loeb said it wasn’t just about the money.

“The only per­son here re­fus­ing to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for what she did is sit­ting right over there,” Loeb said dur­ing his clos­ing ar­gu­ments ges­tur­ing to­ward Hur­challa. “She was on a mis­sion to stop this project and gra­tu­itously harm busi­ness.”

Hur­challa main­tained through the trial that she was ex­er­cis­ing her first amend­ment right to free speech, con­tact­ing her elected of­fi­cials with con­cerns about a project that was get­ting at­ten­tion af­ter the com­pany made a pitch in 2011 to con­vey water from reser­voirs on its land to a drought-stricken West Palm Beach — a move that was not part of the agree­ment.

The emails, sent to com­mis­sion­ers’ per­sonal and gov­ern­ment ac­counts, were the sub­ject of a public records vi­o­la­tion law­suit against Martin County that Lake Point won a year ago, re­ceiv­ing $371,801 in le­gal fees.

Two Martin County com­mis­sion­ers and a for­mer com­mis­sioner are fac­ing charges re­lated to vi­o­lat­ing open records laws in re­la­tion to the Lake Point case.

“You must de­cide if send­ing emails to county com­mis­sion­ers was a proper method of ex­er­cis­ing Mrs. Hur­challa’s right to free speech,” said Hur­challa’s at­tor­ney, Vir­ginia Sher­lock, who em­pha­sized that Hur­challa is a pri­vate cit­i­zen not re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing Martin County of­fi­cials in com­pli­ance with open records laws. “There is not a sin­gle shred of ev­i­dence that Maggy acted out of mal­ice or ill will to­ward Lake Point.”

The Lake Point saga dates to 2008 when the com­pany bought about 2,200 acres in far west­ern Martin County near Lake Okee­chobee that was slated for a polo com­mu­nity. The pur­chase price was a $47.7 mil­lion. The cur­rent to­tal mar­ket value for tax pur­poses is about $23.6 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the Martin County prop­erty ap­praiser.

When the hous­ing mar­ket crashed, the horse com­mu­nity was canned, and Lake Point came up with a plan to mine the land and then do­nate the holes af­ter 20 years to the South Flor­ida Water Man­age­ment District for stor­age and treat­ment ar­eas for Lake Okee­chobee over­flow. It be­came a public works project.

To make the min­ing more palat­able, and get ap­proval to pull rip-rap from prop­erty that once grew sug­ar­cane, Martin County was courted by the district of­fi­cials and Lin­de­mann to join an agree­ment that would al­low the min­ing. The sell­ing point was that Lake O water would be di­verted from the frag­ile St. Lu­cie Es­tu­ary. Martin County also would get a public park out of the deal.

While Lake Point pur­sued the case against Hur­challa since 2013, Loeb said the com­pany never wanted for it to go all the way to lit­i­ga­tion.

“We al­ways wanted her to re­tract her state­ments,” Loeb said.

Hur­challa has been stead­fast in de­fend­ing her com­ments to com­mis­sion­ers and claims that wet­lands were de­stroyed.

Last week, 19th Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit Judge William Roby, who over­saw the trial, said if she would just apol­o­gize to Lake Point, they would likely drop the case, she said.

In a closed-door meet­ing with Hur­challa and her at­tor­neys, Roby showed her an apol­ogy let­ter he had drafted and urged her to sign it.

She re­fused.

“If I lost or gave up, I didn’t see how any res­i­dent could feel safe telling their county com­mis­sion­ers that they ques­tioned a con­tract or a de­vel­oper’s pro­posal,” Hur­challa said in a writ­ten ac­count of the meet­ing. “I told Judge Roby I ap­pre­ci­ated his kind­ness in try­ing to help me but I felt that the prin­ci­ple was too im­por­tant to walk away.”

Leav­ing the court­room Wed­nes­day, Loeb said the jury sent a mes­sage.

“You can’t lie, that’s the mes­sage, you’re not al­lowed to lie,” Loeb said.

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