Fraud inquiry helps stall tree suit

Article Courtesy of The Herald-Tribune

By Tom Lyons

Published July 4, 2015


After a contractor for Sarasota County destroyed dozens of oak trees on the back edge of his home's lot without his permission, Keith Bradley says he first thought the county was going to agree to replant the trees.

The oaks were well outside the ditch that was supposedly being cleared and, Bradley argues, also well outside the easement that might otherwise have allowed the county to destroy them had there been drainage-related reasons to do so. There weren't any, he says.

Bradley says the trees were removed needlessly during the ditch clearing at the request of an influential homeowner's association official who must have wanted more open area there for the neighborhood's horse trail.

The Myakka Valley Ranches subdivision rules and easement rights give neighbors access to ride through the back edge of each other's property, which is more than fine with Bradley. For years, his family rode those trails too, and though he doesn't ride now, Bradley says he helps keep the trails passable and enjoys seeing riders pass by.

But those neighbors certainly never needed to have all those oaks removed, he says. Bradley says he was especially outraged that it was done by the county, which has no business clearing anything for privately owned horse trails.

When the county did not replant his oaks, Bradley filed a lawsuit that has been dragging on now for five years. The key argument, as an assistant county attorney states in court records, hinges on differing views of the easement rules and boundaries as stated on a plat map recorded in 1971 and amended in 1972.

Normally, I wouldn't be writing about this plodding suit. It seems Bradley has good reason to be unhappy, but I'm not qualified to sort through technicalities of easement law. I'd rather be dragged behind a horse. I hope the courts will do a good job and that a news story will tell us the outcome one of these decades.

But here is the weird thing: Bradley has what I would normally guess to be a crackpot theory that the county's case was based largely on a plat map that was fraudulently altered. He says he has an expert who will testify to seeing erasure marks in the original at the Sarasota County clerk's office. There also is the matter of a surveyor's amendment, registered in 1972, that was not noted on the plat as it was supposed to be.

Bradley insists the amendment actually was noted on the plat, and says he and a courthouse clerical employee saw that notation years ago. That's how he knew about it and got a copy years ago, he says. He insists the surveyor's note was not accidentally omitted in 1972 but rather was erased far more recently, after the suit was well underway.

Yes, you've got it: Bradley claims some county employee illegally altered a property record at the courthouse in hopes of tilting the playing field their way. A few weeks ago, he reported this theory, and provided certified copies of maps and documents he believes support it, to a detective and later told me a police investigation was underway.

His theory sounds far fetched. The stakes in this suit are surely not anywhere near so high as to reasonably tempt even a seriously unethical county employee to risk such a fraudulent action, which would also likely require some assistance from someone inside the office of the Sarasota County Clerk of Court office, which surely has no dog in the oak tree fight.

So, could police really be taking that blockbuster charge seriously?

Sarasota Police have not confirmed that there is an investigation. Clerk Karen Rushing told me several days ago that she knows of no law enforcement efforts to question her staff. She said Bradley did find a mistaken omission of a note that should have been on a plat to give notice of the otherwise hard-to-find easement amendment, but she said she knows of no reason to suspect it was erased or that fraud was involved.

Yet just when I was thinking no one would take this theory seriously, the county's lawyer surprised me with a motion to postpone two depositions of clerk employees that Bradley's side wants to question. The motion, filed by Assistant County Attorney Milan Brkich, argues that those depositions shouldn't be allowed now because if the clerk's employees testify, they "expose themselves to potential criminal liability ..."

They do?

Those employees, Brkich argues, need time to hire personal lawyers to advise them on whether to testify or, as he puts it, "exercise their individual constitutional rights." Or, he argued, "the court should stay the proceedings until the criminal investigations are resolved."

Brkich did not respond to my call, so I have no idea if he really knows of an investigation. Maybe he is just stalling to keep this case unresolved for as long as possible, possibly until the time the trees would have died a natural death if left standing. Then again, maybe he thinks some local government employee really does need a lawyer.