Columns

Virginia Sherlock, Martin County Litigator de Sade

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: August 11, 2014 3:55 AM
Virginia Sherlock

Virginia Sherlock

No one elected her. And if somebody appointed her -- or pays her a salary -- nobody seems to know who that person is.

Nevertheless, sometime during the past couple of years, Virginia "Ginny" Sherlock, an attorney best known for the land-use lawsuits she's filed against Martin County, quietly became the driving force -- the single most important person -- in Martin County government.

Sherlock is known by different descriptions. She's either "the sixth County Commissioner," or "the real Martin County administrator," or just ... well ... "trouble," as in "Here comes ..."

I Beg to Differ

Mainly, she's a highly intelligent manipulator -- the more public face of the Martin County power triumverate that includes former County Commissioners Maggy Hurchalla and Donna Melzer. Melzer is also a lawyer, by the way. The point is, it's those three who make all the decisions -- yes, all of the ones that matter -- for the Sarah Heard-led County Commission.

They're the ones who strategize about "our Martin County protections." Sherlock's main job is putting her toe behind county staff and commissioners to make sure what's supposed to happen, happens.

Sherlock's manipulative power is best seen in the dozens, the hundreds of directives she writes in aid of the Hurchalla-Melzer-Sherlock agenda. Her communications skills are legion. She's a master. According to a Washington Press Club bio online, Virginia Pitt Sherlock was a journalist with the Associated Press from 1972 to 1978 "who became a named plaintiff in the Title VII sex discrimination case against the Associated Press."

In the interviews she had with the Press Club, Sherlock "comments several times on how the skills she learned as a journalist -- the ability to conduct research and write copy quickly -- have been beneficial to her in her law career." 

Martin County insiders say, to see her influence, you have to be part of the goings-on at county hall: Midlevel employees fear her, upper-level employees yes-m'am her. But nobody deigns to cross her.

Anecdotes about Sherlock roll off the tongue like a roster call.

"She carefully builds a case to have people she doesn't want around fired," one county employee told me. "She's brilliant at it. It's best if you see her coming, you just smile politely and keep on moving."

Brett Lear, director of Martin County Library Systems, was loved and respected by his advisory board, same for the Friends of the Library. But board members say he wasn't the director the commission majority -- or Sherlock -- wanted. He was harassed endlessly over nonissues, as much by Sherlock as by the commissioners, and earlier this year he'd had enough, took a library director job in Sonoma, Calif.

Speaking of libraries, months ago Barbara Clowdus, editor of Martin County Currents, known for her columns critical of County Commission actions and sometime inaction, was told she could no longer leave copies of her paper at the library or in the County Administrative Center lobby. A memo from Sherlock to the county administrator slapped a ban on that practice. (Yes, that's the same Sherlock who was a former journalist and protector of the First Amendment.) 

In Hobe Sound, some called Sherlock's tactics "cruel" and "sadistic" after she published a piece in the Oct. 21, 2013, Martin County Times turning Flash Beach Grill owners Robert and Anita Breinig "into uncaring, cold, scofflawing business people who don't give a damn about Martin County." Read the story for yourself. No wonder the Zeus Park Newsletter editor refused to print the flyer announcing a rally held in the Breinigs' behalf.

Before virtually every commission meeting, Sherlock distributes notes to commissioners about items coming up on the agenda, advising them how to vote. Nothing subtle -- she outright tells them, on everything of consequence, from dredging the inlet to airport customs. Oddly, almost always, commissioners do exactly as they're told. In fact, during one meeting Commissioner Ann Scott of Jupiter Island -- a former judge, no less -- used word-for-word phrases from Sherlock's brief to substantiate the case for her vote.

Sherlock's influence crept up on the county. It was aided dramatically by her friendship with County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Heard and the election of a new commission majority in 2012. Remember, she and Heard long have been allies by association with the Martin County Conservation Alliance (of which Melzer is president). Sherlock's involvement in Alliance lawsuits against Martin County is well-known.

The secretary of state's public records in Tallahassee show a connection, too, between Virginia Sherlock and the Jupiter Island organization Guardians of Martin County Inc. When the Guardians filed articles of incorporation with the state on March 6, 2009, Sherlock was listed as a director, as was another of Hurchalla's friends, Sally O'Connell. Then, on May 10, 2010, the Guardians filed an amendment to their articles of incorporation and in their April 3, 2014, annual report, Sherlock was not mentioned as a director. She is the current registered agent.

I am still looking for the Guardians' federal form 990 to see a record of their expenses. They are registered as a 501(c)3, a nonprofit, meaning they are not allowed to engage in political activities of any kind.

And lawyer Sherlock represents former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla against Lake Point. Yet, when Sherlock spoke at the 2014 Martin County Growth Management Forum against SLAPP suits -- using Hurchalla as a victim -- what do you know, she forgot to come clean with her own stake in the case. Have a look at the video.

I wanted to ask her about that, and about transparency in other areas, including her involvement with the Martin County Times. I wanted to ask if she has any idea why a letter from The Pacific Legal Foundation, dated July 18, has not been posted on the county's website. The letter advises Martin County that it's moving illegally against Flash Beach Grill. (See letter in the attachment below.)

I had a lot of questions for Virginia Sherlock. But she didn't return any of my calls this weekend. What a shame.



Reach Nancy Smith via email at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423, or follow her on Twitter: @NancyLBSmith.

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Comments (39)

ellen b
8:34AM SEP 11TH 2014
I enjoy all your columns and wish you were still here in Martin County
If you have an email alert list I would appreciate
Peggy Hess
7:43AM AUG 18TH 2014
Yellow Journalist Green with Envy

By Virginia Sherlock

Poor Nancy Smith. The editor of a web-based news outlet operated by political hacks in Tallahassee has worked herself into a frenzy over Martin County’s success in avoiding overdevelopment and economic disaster that has plagued so much of the state.

Smith attacks those who have done what she has been unable to do. She is green with envy that while her rantings and ravings are often ignored and mocked by the policy-makers she wants to influence, Martin County citizens speak up and make ourselves heard by elected representatives who care what we have to say.

Martin County residents are proud of their environmentally and economically robust community. And residents can justifiably claim credit for the success we enjoy. When we see a threat to our quality of life, we take action to protect what we have. We take on All Aboard Florida, Big Sugar and other polluters of our rivers, estuary and lagoon, and developers who want to turn our agriculturally rich western lands into new cities at the expense of local taxpayers.

Smith failed miserably while she was an editor at the Stuart News to convince Martin County residents that wildlife, wetlands, and native vegetation should be replaced by urban development. She now lashes out at her former employer for endorsing the re-election of Commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding and uses her on-line blog to bash those she perceives as responsible for her journalistic and political embarrassment.

Smith is a classic yellow journalist. (Yellow journalism presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques include exaggeration, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. – Wikipedia)

Case in point: Smith’s August 11, 2014, blog “Virginia Sherlock, Martin County Litigator de Sade.” Catchy headline. But comparing me to the French writer famous for erotic writings about pornography, violence, and blasphemy against the Catholic Church? Really?

Of course, truth doesn’t matter to the yellow journalist. Provocative headlines, exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering and sensationalism are her currency.

Smith offers no support for her claim that Maggy Hurchalla, Donna Melzer and I “make all the decisions - yes, all of the ones that matter” in Martin County. If that were true, Martin County would not be spending more than a million dollars on a fee-based Customs facility at the local airport. The Customs facility, the most controversial project in Martin County in recent months, was approved by the County Commission, despite the fact that I strongly and publicly opposed it.

Smith complains that prior to almost every Commission meeting, I send e-mails advising Commissioners how to vote “on everything of consequence, from dredging the inlet to airport customs.” She says this as if it were a bad thing for citizens to communicate their thoughts and ideas to elected officials prior to a vote in the hope of influencing the outcome.

Smith implies that I am responsible for firing an undisclosed number of County employees but fails to name a single discharged employee, identifying only a former library director who left the County after a short stint for a higher-paying job in California. Smith also erroneously claims it was “a memo from Sherlock” rather than long-established policy prohibiting the use of County property to distribute advertisements or promote private businesses that deprived the publisher of a giveaway community newspaper of the “right” to use taxpayer- financed facilities like the County Administrative Center to circulate her publication. (Note to Nancy Smith: There is no such thing as “county hall” here in Martin County.)

Smith says “Sherlock’s involvement in (Martin County Conservation) Alliance lawsuits against Martin County is well-known;” however, my law firm has been involved in no such lawsuits and only one administrative petition on behalf of the Alliance in the last 20 years. Perhaps Smith was confused by the fact that my firm now represents the Alliance, 1000 Friends of Florida, and the Indian Riverkeeper in support of the County’s defense of an administrative petition filed by developers challenging Comprehensive Plan amendments approved by the County.

Smith also writes that I represent Maggy Hurchalla “against Lake Point,” again apparently confused about the basis of the litigation. My firm is defending Maggy in a suit filed against her by Lake Point, the rock pit operated in western Martin County by George Lindemann, the Miami-based heir to a family fortune who served time in federal prison for having his show horse electrocuted to collect insurance proceeds. Lake Point wants Maggy to stop criticizing its environmentally questionable project that has now morphed into a plan to suck water out of Lake Okeechobee and sell it to communities south of Martin County.

Smith portrays me as someone whom “mid-level (County) employees fear” and “upper-level employees yes-m’am.” She concludes that “nobody deigns to cross her,” more accurately describing Smith herself while she ran the Stuart News newsroom. A former reporter sued the Stuart News and its parent company alleging that he “was specifically instructed by Managing Editor Nancy Smith to research and write news stories which reflected negatively on Janet Gettig, a Martin County Commissioner. Smith indicated her displeasure with Gettig and conveyed to (the reporter) her desire that (the reporter) research and write stories which portray Gettig in a negative light to Martin County residents. Because (the reporter) feared for his continued employment with Scripps and News, he attempted to comply with Smith’s directive.”

The lawsuit also alleges that “prior to publication of (a news story written by the reporter), it was altered by Nancy Smith and it was this altered version which was ultimately published by Scripps and the News. Smith’s version of the story contained an error and it was Smith’s error which was wrongfully and pretextually attributed to (the reporter)” and was used to “wrongfully discharge” him. Staff morale is decidedly better since Smith departed the Stuart News, and the level of professionalism also has improved.

Smith demonstrates her lack of understanding of basic journalistic style by attributing specific words to me, placing her own words in quotation marks which she says I used in “a piece” published in a local on-line news letter. (Note to Ms. Smith: The correct use of quotation marks appears in the immediately preceding paragraphs. It is improper to place quotation marks around words of your own choosing rather than words actually used by the person you say you are quoting.) She provided a link to an e-mail that I wrote about a Commission agenda item on the Flash Beach Grille. (Note to Ms. Smith: Advocacy of a particular business has more credibility when you correctly spell the name of the business. It’s Grille with an “e”.)

Smith also falsely accused the Zeus Park newsletter editor of refusing to announce a rally for the business. The announcement was, in fact, distributed electronically to the Zeus Park community.
In an apparently exhaustive Google search, Smith learned that I was an interviewee in the Washington Press Club’s oral history project on Women in Journalism, which is archived at Columbia University in New York City, where I was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press. (Note to Nancy Smith: It’s The AP, with a capital “T”.) I have maintained friendships with many of my former colleagues, who have offered a number of suggestions to help Smith improve her journalistic skills after reading her blog.

Smith shows her lack of basic research and reporting skills by grousing that she is “still looking for the . . . federal form 990" of the Guardians of Martin County, Inc., the venerable non-profit that evolved from an organization set up by former Time magazine publisher Bernie Auer to educate citizens about the importance of the Martin County Comprehensive Plan. Smith’s sloppy reporting and muddy writing suggest that I was a member of the Guardians’ Board of Directors from 2010 to 2014. Florida Division of Corporations records confirm that I was not a director during any of those years. Smith’s failure to locate the Guardians’ tax returns is astounding; it took me less than five minutes to find the returns posted on-line.

I could have given Smith some tips on how to conduct basic internet research, but I haven’t had the opportunity to chat with her. Although she wrote that I “didn’t return any of (her) calls this weekend,” my caller ID and voice mail reflect no calls from Nancy Smith.

The yellow journalist would rather use purple prose and red herrings than facts and good reporting skills to get out a message that most Martin County residents reject. We like our Martin County difference, and we will continue to fight to protect it despite attacks from a Tallahassee blogger who thinks that green is only about envy or money
Martin Resident
5:00PM AUG 14TH 2014
Aren't the Guardians of Martin County the group that continuously files frivolous lawsuits against the taxpayers of Martin County, Ron? Can you tell us how much these lawsuits have cost and continue to cost the taxpayers of Martin County?

Find out the truth about Sarah Heard and the Ethics Complaints against her at thetruthaboutsarahheard
Ron Hutchinson
3:55PM AUG 14TH 2014
Sarah, Ginny, Maggy, Donna and the Guardians of Martin County are the watchdogs and saviors of our chosen and preferred way of life here in Martin County. Nancy, I sometimes enjoy you "Newsletter" but this is political trash and I am surprised that you would associate yourself with such Trashy statements. I also do not hide my name!!!!!!
Peggy Hess
7:45AM AUG 18TH 2014
RIGHT ON RON!
Kurt Smith
1:37PM AUG 14TH 2014
Everyone please be smart not idiots!
Peggy Hess
7:44AM AUG 18TH 2014
That's right
VOTE HEARD and FIELDING
Jennifer Lovett
10:20PM AUG 13TH 2014
GREAT job Nancy! I have seen the emails that Ginny sends to Heard, Fielding and Scott directing them how to vote and it's pretty unbelievable that this can even be allowed! Sad state of affairs and I hope that Aug 26th rings in new leadership who will think and act themselves and not to special interest groups or influences!!! BTW Martin County resident since 1978
Martin Resident
6:54PM AUG 13TH 2014
Grant,

You're a riot! This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. You peeps are always the victims. Good luck with that one. I'm surprised you're not calling it a SLAP suit. LOL
Grant Rawding
4:12PM AUG 13TH 2014
Always amazed at how much trash can be aimed at people who try to stand up for what's best for the average residents of Martin County. Your article is simply character assassination.

Shame
Peggy Hess
7:46AM AUG 18TH 2014
I could not have said it any better!
Kurt Smith
1:35PM AUG 14TH 2014
No shame on your for being and Idiot!
Peggy Hess
7:47AM AUG 18TH 2014
Kurt... name calling? That's classy!
John Hennessee
7:44AM AUG 13TH 2014
PS....... and I am one of the few who use my real name.... and don't hide behind psuedonyms.
John Hennessee
7:42AM AUG 13TH 2014
I am considered a citizen very knowledgeable about the goings on in Martin County government. I was chair of the Independent CRA., sat on numerous county committees and boards, including the Convention and Visitors bd.... and still sit on the Parks & Rec bd. Also a board member of the Marine Industries, and a charter organizer of the Port Salerno Seafood Festival.

I can vouch for the truth in everything that Nancy Smith is saying. The MCCA and the triumvirate she describes are indeed... A SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP.... that the commission majority now caters to. I have also been targeted by them. But 12 years is enough.... and they are going to fall on August 26th.
Peggy Hess
7:50AM AUG 18TH 2014
What can you vouch for? You got what you wanted from the CRA to enhance your business! Thank God the County CRA was disbanded. TOO BAD your "special interest group" has no power with this commission.
Frank
10:41AM AUG 13TH 2014
Clearly, no political partisanship here . . . . nor revealed revenge motive . . . now a vendetta . . .

Pathetic . . . .
gerry
8:38PM AUG 11TH 2014
Why is this important information not being published by The Stuart News? Did not know we had a phantom County Commissioner. This should not be allowed. I am no fan of Doug Smith. Wonder why he has not shed light on this unacceptable situation? Kudos to Nancy Smith
for exposing this political scheme.
Peggy Hess
7:52AM AUG 18TH 2014
IMPORTANT INFO! Ya right! This is pure trash and that is why responsible news will not publish it! IMAGINE THAT!
Martin employee
9:43PM AUG 11TH 2014
If you followed the commission meetings, you would know D oug does about as much as he can to fight the other four and Sherlock too. Just to punish him (because they didn't want to see him get credit for something good), they turned down his Mooring Field which would have helped make the Indian River cleaner. There was no other reason for killing his good project except to punish him. I agree with you all the way that Stuart News should have written all these stories. They became cheerleaders instead of reporters.
Peggy Hess
7:55AM AUG 18TH 2014
Your comments are meaningless because you FAIL to identify yourself. You are a coward.You are dismissed.
Peggy Hess
7:55AM AUG 18TH 2014
Your comments are meaningless because you FAIL to identify yourself. You are a coward.You are dismissed.
Frank
7:21PM AUG 11TH 2014
Yes, yes, C Breeze below must be right . . . . criticizing someone for describing Nancy doesn't like as de Sade, just "trouble", manipulator, cruel, sadistic, etc., is clearly not a personal vendetta, is it . . . just like it wasn't about everyone else SSN doesn't agree with . . . you know, like Florida Supreme Court Justices, Charlie Crist . . . or virtually ALL Democrats . . . they're all to be demonized . . . . . yes, the apt word for this is . . . .

Pathetic . . . . .

And then there's that C Breeze self-description first as a Democrat, then as a libertarian . . . then as a Tea Party tinfoil hat type . . . and most recently as "apolitical" (although, I see below the continually changing claim is back to Democrat again) . . . . can you believe that . . . neither could I . . . . . . hmm, almost beginning to write like a young ex-cub reporter of SSN . . . . hmm, wonder if business is slow to the northwest along the coast . . . on second thought, NO, he made better arguments, even if naïve . .

Pathetic . . . .
PHS
7:12PM AUG 11TH 2014
Hey Nance did you forget Ginny's memo to commissioners pleading with them to forgive the legal fees like they serve her special interest friends instead of the taxpayers of Martin County?

I think they all know they are in trouble this election & I predict Maggy Hurchalla will write a letter to the voters of Martin County singing the praises of Sarah Heard & all wonderful things she and Ginny have done to protect the residents of Martin County. It will be pure garbage but if it comes from Maggy people who DON'T know about these clowns will vote for the statusquo.
Jorge de Tuya
7:10PM AUG 11TH 2014
How do these people get away with this?

Time to use the same tactics on her and stop fearing the bully.
Buddy
4:45PM AUG 11TH 2014
Great article Nancy. Thanks for all the good info.
Ted Guy
2:09PM AUG 11TH 2014
Nancy, you've got that right!
Carl
12:10PM AUG 11TH 2014
excellent job Nancy.....nobody tells it like it is like you do!!!! dont stop now!
Martin employee
12:05PM AUG 11TH 2014
Anyone who knows Martin County knows Nancy Smith speaks the truth. There is much she left out too. Sherlock is trying to get rid of all the older county employees who have knowledge of the history they want to rewrite. Honest, this is scary times in beautiful corner of the world. Voters must change this commission and the Stuart News must start writing stories that inform the people what is going on around here.
Frank
11:46AM AUG 11TH 2014
SSN . . . . Personal Vendettas-R-US, LLC . . . . .

Pathetic . . . . .
C Breeze
1:32PM AUG 11TH 2014
Still "tilting at windmills" huh Frank ?

Pathetic... (to borrow your tired overused phrase)





Pathetic...
Frank
7:17PM AUG 13TH 2014
Spoken like the faux spokesperson you say you are . . . so, today I see it's back to being a Democrat . . . the other day it was a Tea-Party conservative . . . then libertarian . . . . when all along, it really appears that you really long to belong to the Know-Nothing Party of yesteryear . . . . you know, during that mid 1850s timeframe of that French economist whose name you can't even copy correctly . . . .

Pathetic . . . .
C Breeze
11:29AM AUG 11TH 2014
Nancy, You have, in your fashion, described the unforseen (or "Things That are Unseen" ) long-term results of 'programs' such as "Womens Suffrage" and "Affirmative Action" etc. Women assuming a position of power wield it like no others, with pettiness, animosity and vindictiveness. IN THIS particular situation, this 'unofficial' women enjoys the mandate, and is surrounded by, ALL women 'officially' in power who protect her and thereby each other. These ad hoc positions in local governments around this State, and are in fact often given official sounding names like "______ County Community Council" or some such and are often peopled by "NIMBY" types or pseudo "Save the (name the animal type)" relocated and/or retired "carpetbaggers" with no 'home life' and "empty nest" self imposed guilt. For them it's either political campaign "wonk work" or ANYTHING "official" they can manage to acquire (far too many out of work lawyers in this catagory). In this particular category, this woman is creating animosity, anguish and fear among legitimate governmental employees and there no strong leader to put her in her place ( a situation much like Obama's)...
Michael
11:34AM AUG 11TH 2014
With supporters such as you Nancy Smith and presumptively Republictallygal will feel very empowered.
PS, you most certasinly are not a Democrat. Maybe an 1850 or 1950 Democrat, southern, but not post 1970.
C Breeze
1:26PM AUG 11TH 2014
Yes Michael, I am a Democrat; but definitely NOT a "1970 Democrat" as YOU put it. I am a thinking, reasoning, freedom & liberty loving Democrat, and certainly not one of YOUR ilk ! (What I can't figure is why you would "out" yourself like that... I guess it's merely immaturity or 'room temperature IQ...)
Frank
3:04PM AUG 12TH 2014
Of course you are . . . you are whatever current reality you believe you're in . . . . . liberal, conservative, libertarian, Tea Party type . . . when facts and reality don't mean anything, well, that's just . . . .

Pathetic . . . .
Michael
8:23AM AUG 11TH 2014
Ah yes. Nancy Smith appears to ne rather vindictive herself.
Imagine a tireless advocate with great reasoning and communication skillsplus being a lawyer that very publically advocates for their positions.
And is successful.
The 501(c)3 nonprofit status no political activity is a joke . As is well known. Have3 never seen a peep from Nancy Smith re the Tea Party and Republican affiliated organizations that use it as a cover for their donors and are all politics all the time.
Shoot, I bet Nancyh thinks Lois Lerner to be desicable for actually trying to enforce the general intent of the law. Which of course the IRS capitulated on.
And the Pacific Legal Foundation never has a political axe to grind.
Actually they always have a political axe to grind.
Repubtallygirl
10:18AM AUG 11TH 2014
Good job Nancy, based on this, you know you have hit a nerve.
Frank
3:13PM AUG 12TH 2014
Yes, yes, personal demonization politics should always to lauded as victory . . . . . just like racism, denial, discrimination and voter suppression . . . .

Pathetic . . . .

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