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Powerhouse cast embroiled in Florida tale of taxpayer loss

multimillion-dollar land battle as tangled as a mangrove stand unfolded in the Treasure Coast this fall with a powerhouse cast and tale of taxpayer loss only the Sunshine State could muster.

Embroiled in the government showdown with a billionaire tainted by a horse hit-man scandal is a Jupiter Island titan with Nixon on his resume, Janet Reno’s equally resolute environmentalist sister, and water.

The twisted plot also includes the rare levy of criminal charges in November alleging a Martin County commissioner and a former commissioner violated public records laws. A third commissioner was accused of a non-criminal infraction.

The charges, including two criminal misdemeanors, were brought days after an exasperated Martin County ended a five-year legal fight with the mining company Lake Point Restoration. In a controversial settlement, Martin County agreed to pay $12 million for a non-appraised, 400-acre piece of land it doesn’t want and write a humiliating apology to Lake Point principals, including co-owner George Lindemann Jr.

Related: Lake Okeechobee project to alleviate algae outbreaks on fast track.

The South Florida Water Management District, also a party to litigation brought by Lake Point in 2013, settled in August with a surprise vote promising to buy 50 tons of rubble annually from the company for 15 years. After 50 years, the district gets the mined land for water storage and treatment ponds.

Neither Martin County nor the district are thrilled with the settlements, which also give way for Lake Point to convey water to willing buyers during droughts.

But white flags were raised after years fighting deep-pockets bent on a win and acquainted with controversy.

Lindemann, a one-time Wellington resident, former equestrian Olympic hopeful, and heir to a cellphone and cable TV fortune, was sentenced in 1996 to 33 months in prison for hiring someone to electrocute his show horse, Charisma, for insurance money. Although two decades ago, the conviction so tarnished his reputation that the Democratic National Committee spurned his donations during the 2016 election — a revelation that came when hacked DNC emails were released.

A Lake Point spokesman countered the lingering Lindemann stigma, saying he is an environmentalist who in March donated 1,000 acres worth $8.27 million in Tennessee to be part of the Great Eastern hiking trail. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation named Lindemann conservationist of the year in May.

Point of View: Lake Okeechobee water owned by the people and can’t be sold for profit.

Regardless, Brian Accardo, general counsel for the water management district, said the district just had to “swallow” some aspects of the settlement with Lake Point to end the expensive legal wrangling.

“The exposure in this case was $60 million for the district, but we could settle it by agreeing to buy rock we would have paid for anyway,” Accardo said. “I’d rather buy 50,000 tons of rock a year than take a chance with a jury and lose.”

Martin County Commissioner Ed Ciampi was more fractious, calling the Nov. 14 Martin County Commission vote to settle the lawsuit a “dark day”, “historic” and “dramatic.” In addition to the $12 million purchase of land 30 miles southwest of Stuart, the county spent an estimated $5 million in outside legal fees on the case, he said.

“This was avoidable today and that’s what stings the most,” Ciampi said.

From mining holes to water conservation

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.

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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.

In 2011, South Florida was gripped by a drought so severe, West Palm Beach was in danger of running out of water. Lake Point came forward with a plan to build reservoirs and convey the water to West Palm Beach, for a fee.

The city ultimately decided against buying water from Lake Point, but the company’s offer piqued Martin County’s curiosity as its agreement with Lake Point never anticipated selling water for profit.

By then, some of the commissioners who approved the 2009 agreement were off the dais, and questions were raised about the ultimate environmental benefits of the plan.

LIVE RADAR: Check The Palm Beach Post’s radar map.

Janet Reno’s sister gets involved

Some of the concerns, including over the potential destruction of wetlands, came via email from former Martin County commissioner and stalwart environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla, who is sister to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Hurchalla opposed the deal with Lake Point from the beginning when initial pitches were made in 2008.

In 2013, when Lake Point felt their agreement threatened, they sued Martin County, the South Florida Water Management District and Hurchalla, who Lake Point said was giving commissioners false information about the project. Lake Point also sought copies of private emails between commissioners and Hurchalla.

“All Maggy Hurchalla ever did was communicate her opinions and her expertise regarding Everglades restoration to her elected officials,” said attorney Virginia Sherlock, who is representing the 76-year-old Hurchalla.

The emails revealed that more than one commissioner used a personal account to conduct public business and did not produce emails in a timely manner. According to court documents, County Commissioner Sarah Heard said she couldn’t produce emails because her private Yahoo account had been hacked — a claim a court arbitrator said was “suspicious, bizarre and less than credible.”

In February, Lake Point won the public records lawsuit and $371,801 in legal fees after the arbitrator found the county “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act.”

Nine months later, on Nov. 28, arrest warrants were issued for Martin County Commissioner Edward Fielding and former Commissioner Anne Scott. Both turned themselves in and were released on their own recognizance. They face two criminal misdemeanor charges for failure to allow inspection of public records. Heard pleaded not guilty to a noncriminal violation related to not following public records laws.

RELATED: Criminal charges rare in public records violations

Heard’s attorney, Barbara Kibbey Wagner, said her client maintains she did nothing wrong.

“We look forward to our day in court,” Kibbey Wagner said. “Commissioner Heard has been selflessly serving our community for more than 15 years and she intends to continue to do so.”

Fielding and Scott are scheduled for arraignment Dec. 18.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the non-profit First Amendment Foundation, said she can’t say how often public officials are charged with violations of the public records act.

“But my sense is that it’s not common,” Petersen said.

A Nixon administration official enters 

While Lake Point has settled with Martin County and the water management district, the case against Hurchalla is headed to a 2018 trial, and now, legendary environmental crusader Nat Reed, 84, has entered the fracas with an October letter drawing Lake Point’s ire.

After the water management district reached a settlement debated in a private executive session, the Everglades Law Center made a public records request for the minutes of the session. Reed, a native of Jupiter Island who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, asked several environmental groups to join in pressuring for the records.

Reed said he has been a “watchful opponent of the Lake Point planned sale of water to Palm Beach County.”

Lake Point attorneys said the letter contradicts a deposition Reed gave earlier this year where he said he had only cursory knowledge of the project. Lake Point wants Reed to retract his letter or agree to be deposed again.

Reed said Lake Point’s written request is a “threat” against him and an attempt to intimidate him to change his testimony.

What’s next for Hurchalla and Reed — storied champions of environmental protection — and Lake Point remains to be seen, but the water management district and Martin County clearly hope their role has ended.

In a Nov. 14 letter to Lake Point, Martin County commissioners said they “sincerely apologize to Lake Point, its principals, and its employees for the harsh words and inappropriate deeds of certain commissioners that unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point and denigrated the benefits of the public works project.”

Heard was the lone vote against the settlement.

“This settlement is an unveiled assault on opposition and criticism,” Heard said during the Nov. 14 meeting. “It is meant to muzzle the public and meant to muzzle critical public officials.”

Heard is also scheduled to appear in court Dec. 18 on the public records violation.

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