A Martin County commissioner pleaded not guilty to a charge pertaining to her response to public records requests Tuesday in Stuart.
Sarah Heard, who is in her fourth term on the county commission, is accused of failing to surrender emails she may have sent to, and received from, fellow commissioners, county staff and environmentalist Maggie Hurchalla, the sister of the recently deceased former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
The emails were requested by development company Lake Point. Lake Point wanted to see all communications about a deal it had reached with the county and other government entities pertaining to the mining of land near Lake Okeechobee.
With its request, Lake Point was out to prove that commissioners were illegally communicating and discussing public business in private, and conspiring with members of the public against the company’s interests.
It took several years for Heard to produce some of her emails. But when she was asked to produce emails from her private Yahoo account, she said it had been hacked. In a civil lawsuit, several witnesses testified Heard was lying.
The charge, failure of a public official to respond to a public records request, is rarely used in Florida. It is designed to prosecute public officials who refuse or drag their feet when members of the public and the media demand records. The charging document cites one instance of alleged wrongdoing, in January 2013. The court file did not contain details.
Heard was to be arraigned at the Martin County courthouse about 2 p.m. But with members of the local media gathering, Heard was allowed to meet with her lawyer in the empty courtroom after it was closed to the public.
She pleaded not guilty in writing and vanished without answering questions.
“It’s not a criminal charge,” said Barbara Kibbey Wagner, Heard’s attorney. “It’s a non-criminal infraction. There’s no jail time involved. At worst, it’s a $500 fine.”
Kibbey Wagner added that even if she is found guilty, Heard cannot be forced to resign her elected position.
“Sarah Heard has served this community for 15 years, and she intend on continuing to do so,” the lawyer said.
During her daily brisk walk near her Port Salerno home, Heard briefly stopped to talk about the charge.
“I still don’t know what this is about,” she said. “I don’t know more now than I did this morning. All I know is that I wasn’t arrested.”
The charge may be the result of an ongoing grand jury investigation into the handling of public records by county officials. A source close to the proceedings said other current and former commissioners could end up being charged.
So far, the fight between the county and Lake Point, which is partly controlled by the family of Miami billionaire businessman and arts patron George Lindemann, started nearly 10 years ago when a deal to exploit the environmentally sensitive land collapsed.
So far, the county has lost one civil lawsuit over the public records and was ordered to pay $500,000 of Lake Point’s legal bill. And the county just settled a second lawsuit, for breach of contract. Depending on how to calculate the loss to taxpayers, the county may end up having to pay more than $25 million to Lake Point and Tuesday voted to borrow money to pay some of the settlement.