By DOTTY NIST
Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris and her attorney were in court on June 15 to answer charges of frivolous and “bad faith” legal filings in connection with the lawsuit that she had brought against Walton County and other defendants involving the county’s October 2010 purchase of property on Chat Holley Road. Harris had filed the lawsuit on Nov. 21, 2011.
The all-day hearing took place in the court of Walton County Circuit Judge W. Howard LaPorte at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
Filing the motion for sanctions was 331 Bayside Properties, L.L.C., formerly a defendant in Harris’ lawsuit challenging the property purchase. The company had filed a motion for sanctions against Harris and her attorney, State Representative Matt Gaetz. The motion was one seeking payment of the L.L.C.’s attorney fees. Harris had dismissed 331 Bayside Properties from the lawsuit at the end of March 2012.
Originally, 331 Bayside Properties, the company of Lloyd Blue and his wife Alexa Pleas, was the seller of the 0.45-acre parcel at the Chat Holley Road/U.S. 331 intersection that Walton County had acquired for the purpose of improvements to the road and intersection.
In her amended complaint filed in December 2011, Harris had maintained that Walton County had violated section 286.011, Florida Statutes, by failing to hold a public meeting to authorize the purchase of the Chat Holley property.
At the June 15 hearing on the motion for sanctions, local attorney Gary Shipman, representing 331 Bayside Properties, argued that Harris’ complaint had been frivolous due to its contention that the property had been acquired without an approval vote by the county commission—even though both a report attached to Harris’ initial complaint and the official minutes of the Aug. 24, 2010 county commission meeting revealed that the transaction was approved in public session by county commissioners.
The report referenced was the Carr-Allison report, delivered to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) in October 2011. The report, an independent review of the Chat Holley transaction, was prepared at the request of the BCC shortly after allegations of irregularities surfaced approximately a year after the closing on the property.
Shipman noted that the report had been “unattached” from Harris’ amended complaint, even though it was cited 17 times in that complaint. He maintained this to be an indication of “bad faith” by the plaintiff. Shipman alleged that Harris’ and Gaetz’ real intent had been to get the matter in the press and smear his client.
Gaetz responded that, even if all Shipman had said was true, the question remaining was whether the final version of the purchase contract for the Chat Holley property had gone before the BCC for approval. The fact that the final contract had not been voted on by the BCC was highlighted and repeated a number of times during the hearing by Gaetz and Harris.
The count of Harris’ lawsuit involving the purchase of the Chat Holley property, allegedly in the absence of its authorization in public session, had been dropped by her with the filing of her second amended complaint in March 2012. However, that allegation returned to the forefront in the June 15 hearing. Gaetz took testimony from a series of witnesses and from Harris in an effort to disprove the contention that her lawsuit had been frivolous.
Dealt with at the outset of the hearing was Harris’ motion to prohibit cross-examination of her regarding sources and methods used in a federal criminal investigation in which she reported to have been assisting. Gaetz indicated that the motion applied to specific technical aspects of the investigation, recording devices used, and how the federal agents operated.
Shipman countered that, if a privilege was being asserted, a U.S. attorney rather than Harris would be required to do so. He added that he did not plan to ask Harris about anything regarding the FBI unless she spoke about it.
LaPorte indicated that, if Harris brought up the FBI investigation, she would be subject to cross-examination.
As his witnesses, in addition to Harris, Gaetz called Walton County BCC Chairman Scott Brannon, District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander, south Walton County resident Mary Nielson, District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones, former Walton County Administrator Greg Kisela, and Lyle Seigler, county administrator at the time of the Chat Holley purchase. Emails were also introduced as evidence. Witnesses were cross-examined by Shipman.
Brannon, BCC chairman currently and at the time of the Chat Holley purchase, testified that he had spoken with Harris and told her of problems with the transaction. After some of those problems came to light in September 2011, the BCC had called for the independent study (the Carr-Allison report), Brannon recalled. He noted that Harris had filed her lawsuit challenging the legality of the transaction prior to the report being finished.
In response to a question, Brannon said he did not recall telling Harris that the purchase contract had been impoperly executed or illegal.
He recalled that as chairman he had been presented the contract to sign and that the county attorney and George Ralph Miller, the independent legal counsel who oversaw the purchase transaction, had told him that the contract was OK to sign. “I did,” he testified.
Gaetz asked Brannon if he had admitted that attorney Miller had failed to read the contract that he, Brannon, had signed. “I have no personal knowledge of George Ralph Miller not reading the contract,” Brannon responded.
In response to another question, Brannon said he did not recall telling Harris that Seigler had obtained a loan through his relationship with Lloyd Blue. “I don’t specifically remember saying that,” he testified.
“I thought at minimal it was done sloppy,” Brannon said of the purchase contract. That was the reason for having the independent review done, he recalled. Later he clarifed, “When I say sloppy, it was the file.”
“In my opinion the conclusion was wrong,” he said of the report, later clarifying that he disagreed with only part of the report.
He explained that the report had concluded that there was a decision that the intersection on the road improvemement project would not need to be perpendicular, which was not true. (There is a requirement for more land with a perpendicular intersection than with leaving the intersection at an angle, as was existing, and following the purchase there had been opinions from county officials and consultants that the county would not have needed to purchase property if the intersection were left at an angle.)
“Turns out that the report came back and the title issues have been cleared up,” Brannon continued. “It was not an illegal agreement, and I never said that,” he said of the contract.
Gaetz asked Brannon if there had been a plan between him and Harris that he would state in a public BCC meeting that Harris’ lawsuit against the county was correct. Brannon denied that there had been a plan but said he had told Harris that if the report came back indicating anything inappropriate or that needed correction, it would have been his job as BCC chairman to say so. He said he had not seen the lawsuit at the time he had this discussion with her, but that it would have been his responsibility to say that Harris’ lawsuit was correct if it was supported by the reports’ findings.
He said he did not speak to Harris about the Chat Holley matter after her lawsuit against the county was filed.
In cross-examination, Shipman brought up allegations made by Harris regarding the Chat Holley transactions, among those that Walton County had bought land the county already owned and that the contract had been illegal due to Alexa Pleas signing and not being part of 331 Bayside Properties, L.L.C. Brannon recalled Harris making those statements and confirmed that they had been disproved.
Shipman asked Brannon if he had been told as BCC chairman that after the commission voted to approve a purchase, the actual contract was required to come before the BCC for a vote in public session. Brannon responded that he had not been told that, but that there had been cases when final contracts did come before the commission for approval.
In a redirect, Gaetz asked Brannon about the Sept. 27, 2011, BCC meeting, at which Harris had “rabble-roused,” threatened to sue everyone involved with the Chat Holley transaction, and made the allegations regarding Alexa Pleas and part of the land purchased already being owned by the county.
Brannon was asked if he had known at that time that Harris was going to sue the county. Brannon responded that that had been his opinion….
Read the full story in the June 21, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.