What’s a politician to do while awaiting trial on criminal charges?
If you are Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard … you double down and run for reelection!
Last month, Heard filed for a fifth term as commissioner of District 4, which covers the affluent area of eastern and lower central Martin County — even if her just-filed initial campaign contribution forms don’t show much early support.
Heard started July by loaning herself $5,000. Then she paid for her filing fees, leaving her with $1,164.54 cash on hand just weeks before the primary.
What’s going on here?
About three months after the August 28th election, Heard is scheduled to go to trial before 19th Judicial District Judge Elizabeth Metzger on two charges that she violated the Florida Statutes governing the behavior of public officials towards records that, in essence, belong to the public.
The charges of failure by a public official to permit inspection of records and failure to maintain public records are misdemeanors that carry up to a year in jail each.
That’s the worst-case scenario.
Because she never faced criminal charges before, the 64-year-old Heard likely faces no jail time if convicted of hiding emails she exchanged with legendary environmentalist Maggie Hurchalla in 2013. If found guilty, she’ll likely end up in what prosecutors call a “first-time offender program with community service and probation.
And if she can stay out of trouble successfully for a year, Heard will then have the opportunity to have her case and record sealed from public view, as if it never happened.
To most voters, the whole thing might not sound like a big deal. But politicians, lawyers, prosecutors, journalists and lawmakers and just about anyone involved with the electoral process know full well it’s a serious injury to local democracy.
The accuracy of public records and the honesty of elected leaders is what separates fair government in all cases from a corrupt one.
Floridians have a right that’s often not available in other states, the right to see documents, emails, notes and other records that any elected official produces while on duty.
The records should be accurate.
They should be readily available.
They should be handed over to a requester within a few days.
Heard is accused of being excruciatingly slow to respond to requests for her emails made by lawyers for developer Lake Point. And she – allegedly, of course – actively worked to hide the existing emails at a time when the county stopped cooperating with Lake Point on a multi-million-dollar mining project near Lake Okeechobee.
Heard’s email exchanges with Hurchalla somehow ended up in Heard’s private Yahoo account instead of her official county box. She claimed her Yahoo account was hacked and the emails somehow vanished.
And that prevented Lake Point from trying to understand what was happening behind the scenes, why county officials suddenly stopped cooperating with them on the project.
In time, Heard’s actions combined with those of outgoing county commissioner Ed Fielding and former County Commissioner Anne Scott, both of whom also have a December date with Judge Metzger, could cost Martin taxpayers as much as $26.2 million if you factor in the interests and fees. That’s the settlement Lake Point obtained after it sued the county over the missing emails.
Late last year, the county also reviewed its public records policy and banned commissioners from using personal emails to discuss county business.
Meanwhile, Heard quietly filed her candidacy right before the June 22 deadline without going through the petition process, where candidates need to gather 1,109 signatures to qualify.
Instead of spending her time meeting voters on the streets with a pen and paper, Heard paid the $3,810.36-fee to enter the race without the backing of the public. The fee is the equivalent of 6 percent of the $60,832-salary of a commissioner.
So far, Heard has received scant interest from financial contributors – and that could be a problem in the crowded field.
Heard lags far behind the other three candidates in District 4 in financial contributions, and her $5,000 total booty is a loan to herself.
Republican business owner Niki Norton not only has raised the most money, $23,098.13, and she’s the only candidate who met the public and gathered signatures so that she could qualify without paying a fee.
Retired Martin County employee Harold Markey, who’s collecting a hefty county pension, loaned himself more than $10,310.36 after he gathered $11,375 in contributions — and spent most of the money.
Then there’s Butch Olsen Jr. The president of the Port Salerno Commercial Fishing Dock Authority, Olsen netted about $9,865 but has spent almost all of it on graphic design and signs, then made frantic phone calls to beg for donations in the eleventh hour because he couldn’t afford the qualifying fee.
While Norton clearly has a chance to win, Olsen and Markey might very well cause a split in votes, something that observers fear could carry the legally hobbled Heard across the finish line for a fifth victory.
Voters will get the first chance to judge Heard on August 28th.
And as the winner is sworn in later in the year, it will be the turn of a Martin County jury to decide her fate.