A jury in Stuart on Wednesday found famed environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla, the 77-year-old sister of deceased Clinton-era U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and a South Florida political powerhouse in her own right, liable for interfering in a business deal that a developer tried to hammer out with two government entities.
The jury also decided she must pay $4,391,708 in damages to the company, Lake Point. It’s co-owned by Miami art collector George Lindemann Jr., the son of a billionaire Palm Beach businessman.
Lake Point claimed Hurchalla worked with local politicians to block its contract with government entities to exploit a rock mine near Lake Okeechobee, to use it to store excess water from the lake.
The developer sued five years ago and named Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District for breach of contract. The same action named Hurchalla for tortious interference.
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Late last year, however, both the county and water district settled for a total $18 million.
Hurchalla wouldn’t settle, and Lake Point claimed Hurchalla’s role in the contract collapse cost the company $4 million.
“They’ll get two kayaks and an aging Toyota,” true-to-her-old-Florida-character Hurchalla quipped at the trial’s beginning Feb. 5.
At the heart of the legal squabble: Hurchalla’s claim she simply exercised her freedom to speak out when she reached out to Martin County commissioners in late 2012 and early 2013 to ask that they slow down the Lake Point approval process.
Lake Point claims she talked politicians into stopping what had been a friendly process by using flawed information, including that the company destroyed wetlands on its 2,000 acres.
Throughout last week, Lake Point called witnesses who told the jury of four men and four women there was no destruction of wetlands.
Hurchalla called experts like legendary Everglades protection activist Nathaniel Reed, 84, to show that she usually knows what she’s talking about when it comes to wetlands.
To make matters more complicated, Hurchalla’s email exchanges with county commissioners have led to criminal proceedings against three politicians: Current Martin County commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding, and former Commissioner Anne Scott.
On the stand Tuesday, Hurchalla admitted to sending some emails to commissioners on the county’s official servers while communicating with the trio on their private accounts. In her private emails, she appeared to coach Fielding on how to get rid of Lake Point.
Heard, Scott and Fielding were arrested late last year and charged with failure to surrender public records. When Lake Point demanded copies of the emails from Hurchalla, Heard claimed she couldn’t find them because her Yahoo account was hacked and it took years for Lake Point to obtain what Florida law mandates they give up. The criminal trials are scheduled for December.
Meanwhile Lindemann, the president of the Bass Museum of Art board of directors, also spent two hours on the stand Tuesday morning.
He testified how the county changed from being “partners” with the company in the project to stonewalling then issuing violation notices.
“It all turned on a dime and we didn’t know why,” he told the jurors.
Through the lawsuits with government agencies, Lake Point won the right to continue mining lime rock at the property for 50 years instead of the original 25.