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Nancy Smith

Martin County Commission Chair Slapped With Ethics Complaint

July 14, 2014 - 6:00pm

The state of Florida is currently processing an ethics complaint against Martin County Commission Chairman Sarah Heard for fudging the value of her property in the Rocky Point subdivision by more than $400,000 and deliberately excluding details of property she owns in Illinois and North Carolina.

Though the Commission on Ethics is required to keep such complaints confidential, complainant John McAuliffe of Palm City is under no such constraints. On Monday he gave a copy of the June 18 letter and supporting documents to Sunshine State News.

He claims Heard has undervalued her homesteaded property for nine of the 11 years she's filed disclosure forms -- and out-of-state acreage for all the years she's claimed it,

The Form 6 financial information is required of all public officeholders under Florida Statute 112.3144.

McAuliffe's official letter of complaint includes documentation showing Heard has disclosed only the assessed value of her home at 4584 SE Williams Way, Stuart, which she lists as $457,000.

But the filing instructions on Form 6 call for properties to reflect market value. The Martin County Property Appraiser's Office sets the market value of Heard's Intracoastal Waterway-frontage home at $917,670.

McAuliffe has attached each of Heard's disclosure documents to his complaint letter.

She claims in her latest disclosure that her net worth as of June 9, 2014 is $890,000. In fact, she has always listed her net worth as below $1 million.

In his letter McAuliffe tells the Ethics Commission Heard's motive for undervaluing her property is to show voters she's just-plain-folks. Heard is running for re-election to her District 2 seat this year.

"Commissioner Heard's filing disclosures," he says, 'represent not only a pattern inconsistent with actual 'market' valuations of her assets over her tenure as a county commissioner, but also a perceived intent to illustrate her net worth below a $1 million threshold in order to appeal to a broader field of voters."

He includes in his packet three news stories showing "newspaper headlines give Heard political motivation of understating the value of her house ... the count in each headline would be one more millionaire -- if Heard were honest in reporting the value of her waterfront house."

The stories McAuliffe attaches are these:

  • "3 Martin commissioners worth millions, despite dismal economy" (TCPalm.com, July 31, 2009).
  • "Eight Martin County elected officials and candidates are millionaires" (TCPalm.com, Aug. 20, 2010).
  • "Martin County Commission and School Board feature two millionaires each" (TCPalm.com, Aug. 14, 2011).

A look at all other Martin County elected officials' Form 6 disclosures show Heard is the only one using assessed property valuation instead of fair market. Property Appraiser Laurel Kelly, for instance, shows an assessed value of $400,000 on her house, yet she discloses the higher market value of $451,000.

The Heards obtained a mortgage on April 18, 2013. McAuliffe sees it as a tell-all. He believes that action probably inspired 1) a formal property appraisal of the home and 2) a financial statement demonstrating the Heards' ability to repay the mortgage. "If these documents exist, they will highlight any delta between what Commissioner Heard represents to her lender and what she represents to the voting public," writes McAuliffe.

The Martin County home isn't Heard's only undervalued property, he says.

McAuliffe, 47, a computer technology salesman, points out that Heard lists 100 acres of land in "Southwest Washington County, Illinois" -- and in so doing, fails to follow instructions in Form 6 to provide a street address or any description to run down its location. Year after year she lists the same value -- $100,000. Yet, similar properties listed for sale in that county are selling for $23,000 an acre.

Heard also lists ownership of misrepresented property in Swain County, N.C. "This violation is very straightforward," the complainant writes. "... From 2008-2010 Heard claimed she owned one property in Swain County valued at $43,000. A pattern to misrepresent her net worth continues with ownership of three properties with purchase prices totaling $148,000 in value calculated from the real estate excise taxes she paid and the closing documents she signed for the three properties."

Reached at her office Monday, Heard said she knows nothing about the complaint, and if ethics matters are confidential, she said, then "I have nothing to say about this."

McAuliffe told SSN, "I just couldn't sit back and say nothing any longer. I'm a patriot. I care about my country and I care about this county. The way this commission is governing is plain wrong. It's bad government. So much of what's going on is built on lies. This with Commissioner Heard is just one more lie.

"I'm fighting back is all I'm doing," he said.

McAuliffe said, "I don't have a dog in the hunt: I don't own a business, I'm not a developer. I'm just a concerned dad with an 18-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, a dad who wants his kids to be able to come back to live in Martin County some day if that's what they want. But this commission majority doesn't want families.

"They vote against churches and poor people, they vote against parks, they even voted against the Boy Scouts," he said.

Kerrie J. Stillman, a spokesperson for the Commission on Ethics, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of McAuliffe's complaint. She spoke generally about the way the system works when complaints are received. In terms of how long they take to be addressed, she told SSN, "Each case is different."

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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