In Martin County, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. You may express your opinion–about a dodgy water deal, say, or damage to certain wetlands–but if you challenge the wrong billionaire, if you urge your elected representatives to take action thwarting the plans of said billionaire, you may find yourself hauled into court, financially imperiled, and told that your free speech rights are not what you thought they were, Constitution be damned.
Maggy Hurchalla, longtime warrior for Florida’s environment, daughter of legendary Miami News reporter Jane Wood Reno, and sister of Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States, has been ordered by a court in Martin County to pay the very, very rich George Lindemann Jr. $4.4 million.
Here’s the upshot: in 2008, Lindemann cut a deal with the South Florida Water Management District and the Martin County Commission to mine some of the 2200 acres owned by his company Lake Point, digging up rocks to use in construction and using the resulting pits to store dirty water. The plan was to someday donate land to the county for stormwater treatment. Lindemann sees himself as a Good Guy, though in his rich-brat youth (aged 31), he did prison time. Supposedly a serious contender for the US Equestrian Olympic Team, in 1990, he paid a horse hit man to electrocute his thoroughbred Charisma: he wanted to collect the $250,000 insurance. Lindemann would rather not talk about that. He’d rather you know that he’s given more than $10,000 to Audubon and chairs the board of trustees at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. Can’t blame him there: nobody likes a horse-murderer.
In 2011, Lindemann and Lake Point hit upon the bright idea to sell the water on their property through New Jersey-based American Water, the nation’s largest private utility company. Moving 35 million gallons of H2O every day would net large money. Except Lake Point forgot that water is a public resource. The people own it; and you can’t sell it without the right permits–which Lake Point failed to acquire. Lindemann told the Tampa Bay Times that Lake Point wasn’t charging for the actual water. The company was merely storing and cleaning it, keeping the water happy till it could go quench the thirsts and wash the bodies of aging boomers and Russian ex-pats flocking to the Treasure Coast. Also, Lake Point was supposed to be creating man-made wetlands to filter and clean the water. But it didn’t. Some at SFWMD didn’t seem to care: ever since Rick Scott became governor in January, 2011, he’d made it clear to the water management districts that they should be business friendly. Very friendly. Out went the scientists and in came the cronies, determined to monetize like hell.
Next thing you know, the Palm Beach Post went and wrote about the water deal. Maggy Hurchhalla took a dim view. She started speaking out against it, and accusing Lake Point of damaging wetlands. She sent emails to the Martin County Commission, expressing her opposition. The water district and Martin County backed out of the deal, so Lake Point sued them, subpoenaing emails between Hurchalla and the county commission. Lake Point sued Hurchalla, too, accusing her of lying about the wetlands and “coaching” at least one commissioner, giving “expert” advice on how to extract themselves from Lake Point and (shades of Hillary Clinton!) deleting some of the emails sent to her. Hurchalla’s crime? “Tortious interference,” or, in human-speak, trying to intentionally and unfairly damage a business–a classic SLAPP suit charge.
The county and the water district settled. Hurchalla refused. Lindemann’s lawyers intimated there was something sinister about Hurchalla’s deleting emails, which is news to all of us private citizens who delete emails, even (perhaps especially) from politicians. Circuit Judge William Roby seemed to have made up his mind before Hurchalla had her say in court. At a meeting he called with her and her lawyer, he opined that she would lose the case and presented her with a draft apology. She could confess her transgressions and promise to never diss Lake Point again. Hurchalla declined. And lost.
She lost because Judge Roby let Lake Point lawyers imply no innocent person would delete emails. And because he instructed the jury that intentional “interference” in a contract, criticizing it, advocating for its demise, whatever, is culpable. This is insane. As Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation, says, “If the judgment against Maggy is allowed to stand, it will have a huge chilling effect on citizens throughout Florida. We want citizens to engage with their government and what this SLAPP judgment says is its okay to engage so long as you don’t criticize, so long as you support rather than oppose development funded by deep pockets.”
Since the ruling against her, it’s been harassment piled on top of harassment, freezing and garnishing her accounts and seizing property–two weather-beaten kayaks and a Toyota with north of 207,000 miles on it, so far. Lake Point’s white shoe lawyers also demanded IRS statements and bank records. One of these lawyers insisted she reveal the value of her “furs and jewels.” Hurchalla laughs: “I don’t seem to have any furs or jewels.” He then wanted to know if she’d had her wedding band appraised.
“Instead of encouraging civic engagement,” says Peterson, “the Hurchalla case warns us to keep our mouths shut and fingers off the keyboard.” There’s your lesson, Floridians: don’t cross rich people.
Maybe Maggy Hurchhalla hurt his feelings. Lindemann clearly thinks he’s a good guy, a green guy: he donated some land along Soak Creek up in Tennessee and was named the 2017 Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s “Conservationist of the Year,” damn it! Maybe he’s so accustomed to getting his way he simply must wreak disproportionate revenge on anyone who tries to thwart him. He wants to teach Maggy Hurchalla a lesson. But she’s not going away. And she’s not sorry for revealing that George Lindemann isn’t an environmentalist, just another in a long line of plutocrats pimping out Florida. Maggy Hurchalla is more interested in principle than money: “I can’t think of anything better to do when you’re 77 years old,” she says, “Than defend the First Amendment. Can you?”
Note: An earlier version of this piece contained incorrect information about the Martin County Clerk’s office posting personal information. We have corrected the error.
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.