06-15-2012, 10:49 PM #1
Harris Chat Holley Land Sale Suit
Judge hears testimony stemming from Chat Holley land sale
June 15, 2012 8:30 PM
TOM McLAUGHLIN / Daily News
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The attorney representing developer Lloyd Blue through his company 331 Properties accused local activist Suzanne Harris on Friday of using the courts and the local newspaper to slander his client.
“Things were said about my client in the media and elsewhere that were slanderous,” attorney Gary Shipman argued in a case seeking sanctions against Harris. “This was all designed for political purposes just to smear my client. My client is entitled to sanctions.”
331 Properties sued after Blue was dropped from a lawsuit Harris filed against Walton County, alleging Sunshine Law violations.
Shipman noted that the Sunshine Law provides penalties for those who use it to promote their own agendas.
Matt Gaetz, Harris’ attorney, put his client on the stand and led her through a litany of conversations she says she has had with elected and appointed county officials.
In doing so, he was able to put before the court the reasons she decided to sue Walton County and name 331 Properties in the suit.
Among them were admissions to her by county commissioners that a controversial road project that has since become known as the Chat Holley transaction was finalized illegally.
Walton County Circuit Judge Howard LaPorte spent a long day hearing testimony, then told Shipman and Gaetz to submit orders “in your favor.”
Each side will have until June 29 to respond to the other side’s orders. LaPorte will rule on the motion for sanctions some time after that.
Blue entangled himself in the Chat Holley sale when he bought a parcel of land crucial to the deal after the county voted during a public meeting to purchase it.
He made $324,000 from the sale to the county, according to testimony.
Harris sued the county, arguing that a crucial element of the transaction was committed behind closed doors.
That element involved then-County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon’s signing off on a contract to close the deal after business hours on a Friday.
Testimony indicated that Blue needed the contract signed by that Friday to hold his option to buy the land so he could sell it to the county.
Harris testified Friday that Brannon and fellow County Commissioner Sara Comander told her in face-to-face meetings after the contract was signed that they believed the Chat Holley sale was illegal.
Harris told the court that Brannon had gone so far as to promise he’d take a stand at a County Commission meeting, renounce the deal as it had been done and request that the sale be revisited.
She said she waited to file the lawsuit until Brannon reneged on his promise.
Brannon and Comander also testified Friday. They said they were somewhat fuzzy about details of their meetings with Harris.
Each used the term “I don’t recall” or something similar more than once when questions turned to their conversations with Harris about the Chat Holley deal.
“I remember her having a lot of conclusions of her own,” Brannon said of Harris.
County Commissioner Cecilia Jones was also called to the stand. She testified to receiving a phone call from then-County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara on the Friday Brannon allegedly signed off on the Chat Holley sale.
She said she was asked “since (the Chat Holley intersection) is in your district, would you agree to sign the contract?”
Jones told the court she was offended to receive such a call to weigh in on county business on a Friday night.
“I told them nothing is so important it can’t wait until Monday,” she said.
Shipman argued that Harris based her lawsuit against the county and Blue on three assertions about the land deal that later were proved wrong.
He said a report compiled by a consulting firm that objectively analyzed the sale proved three of Harris’ accusations against the county to be inaccurate.
He argued that her attorney’s decision not to include the report in subsequent court filing made her lawsuit “frivolous on its face.”
Shipman used the transcript from an owners meeting at Edgewater Condominiums, where Harris is president of the owners association, to drive home the assertion that she had a motive other than serving the public good for filing her lawsuit.
He asked Harris if an accusation made by Brannon and repeated by him during testimony Friday — that Harris was to receive $50,000 from Blue if she agreed not to file her lawsuit — was true.
“I do not need Mr. Brannon’s money or Mr. Blue’s money,” Harris said. “I’ve never asked for any money from anybody. I’m paying more than $50,000 for this lawsuit.”
When she said no, Shipman reminded her of Brannon’s earlier testimony. His word against hers, he told her, meant “one of you is lying.”
“Yes sir,” Harris agreed.
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