A six-year public record case has come to an end. This brings a long-running dispute that involved hundreds of dollars in legal fees to a close. The state attorney’s office for the 19th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida announced on Friday that it was dropping all criminal charges against two former commissioners, Anne Scott and Ed Fielding.
In 2017, Scott and Fielding were charged with multiple counts of “knowingly failing to provide public records” following a request for government email records from mining company Lake Point Restoration. The charges were amended 12 months later to include other offenses related to Scott’s failure to return records to her office.
Lake Point Restoration vs Martin County
In 2013, Lake Point Restoration filed a lawsuit against Martin County for breach of contract relating to the use of land to clean polluted water from Lake Okeechobee and a violation of the state’s public records law.
Martin County agreed to pay a settlement of $12 million and write a letter for “unnecessarily tarnishing” Lake Point’s reputation. The county also agreed to pay Lake Point LLC $371,800 legal fees and produce all related public records. The details of the agreed civil settlement prevented the state from presenting any substantial evidence during the course of the criminal case against Heard. As a result, in April 2019, Heard was acquitted of criminal charges by a jury after less than 30 minutes of deliberation.
The close ties between the criminal charges filed against Anne Scott, Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard meant that prosecutors were likely to face similar challenges in proving their case.
Assistant state attorneys Ryan Butler and Nita Denton explained the decision in a memo.
“Since the cases against Ed Fielding and Anne Scott are inextricably intertwined with the case against Sarah Heard, we have no reason to believe that we will not suffer the same legal rulings in their trials,” they said. “Our inability to present the jury with the complete picture of the case, thereby demonstrating the interrelated nature of these cases, is extremely detrimental to our ability to successfully prosecute these cases.”
Specifically, the arbitration agreement prevented the state from presenting any evidence relating to the actions of Ed Fielding and Anne Scott who were co-defendants in the case, presenting evidence that Martin County admitted that the commissioners, Sarah Heard, Anne Scott and Ed Fielding were involved in the violation of the public records law, presenting any evidence relating to the civil lawsuit involving Maggy Huchalla, an environmentalist who was the sender and recipient of emails relating to the breach of contract suit filed by Lake Point and triggered the public records violation lawsuit, and other relevant matters relating to the Arbitration findings and decisions.
Criminal Public Record Violations
Criminal charges against public officials for public record violations are a rare event but can lead to potentially severe consequences. Under Florida State Laws, a civil violation of a public records law may not result in criminal charges but is punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Obtaining public records may be fundamental in Florida State, but it is not always an easy task. Record acquisition websites and services have grown in popularity as they provide a convenient way of obtaining various public records and information without the long wait and bureaucracy.
About the State Public Record Law
Florida Sunshine Laws guarantee that the public can demand information and transparency on government activities, including even conversations relating to the public and governance between officials. Public records include all documents, maps, pictures, papers, notes, letters, books, software emails, any item, information or data regardless of its physical form, characteristics or means of transmission that relates to any public agency’s official activities or business.
The broad definition of public records under the sunshine laws obligates public organization and officials to present all public information requested within a limited timeframe. Consequently, legal actions may be filed against any Florida government officials who are not forthcoming with requested public records or information.