FDLE releases investigative report regarding Manatee County commissioners

MANATEE COUNTY – On Thursday, April 1, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) provided a copy of the 25-page investigative report that details the recent investigation that found no evidence of criminal conduct regarding four Manatee County Commissioners.

You can read the entire FDLE report here.

On March 19, FDLE spokesperson Jeremy Burns provided a case summary regarding the investigation initiated in response to a criminal complaint filed by paralegal Michael Barfield. You can read Barfield’s complaint here:

“In December, the state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit requested FDLE’s assistance with reviewing a citizen complaint concerning allegations of Sunshine Law violations and possibly other law violations by several Manatee County commissioners. FDLE Agents met with the complainant who alleged that Manatee County Commissioners James Satcher, George Kruse, Vanessa Baugh and Kevin Van Ostenbridge conspired to reverse a controversial land purchase and to fire the Manatee County administrator,” the case summary stated.

“FDLE initiated a preliminary inquiry to determine if any criminal violations occurred. After the review of records provided by the complainant and conducting several interviews, there was no information obtained to substantiate that a criminal violation occurred,” the FDLE case summary stated in conclusion.

When contacted regarding the previously issued case summary, Burns said FDLE considered the investigation concluded and closed.

Van Ostenbridge seeks protective order in public records case

BRADENTON – Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights if he’s deposed under oath by paralegal Michael Barfield.

On Monday, attorney Morgan Bentley filed a motion seeking a protective order from Judge Charles Sniffen. Bentley’s motion references the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that “No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

In response to Bentley’s motion, a Zoom hearing has been scheduled before Judge Charles Sniffen on Friday, March 5, at 1:30 p.m. The hearing seeks Sniffen’s ruling on the protective order sought by Bentley and Van Ostenbridge.

Bentley’s motion pertains to the public records requests Barfield began making of Van Ostenbridge and fellow commissioners Vanessa Baugh, George Kruse and James Satcher on Nov. 20.

Barfield began submitting his records requests one day after Van Ostenbridge made a motion, with no advance public notice or previous commission discussion, to put County Administrator Cheri Coryea on notice that her proposed termination would be decided in early December. Van Ostenbridge made that motion two days after he, Kruse and Satcher took office.

On Dec. 7, Barfield filed a civil lawsuit against Satcher as part of his ongoing efforts to obtain all  of the records he requested, many of which since been provided. Filed with the Circuit Court of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit in Manatee County, Barfield’s lawsuit names Van Ostenbridge and Baugh as co-defendants. Barfield’s lawsuit is a civil case. It is not a criminal case, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is independently conducting a related criminal investigation.

Deposition opposed

When being deposed, the subject of the deposition is questioned under oath – usually in a non-courtroom setting – with a court reporter present. The court reporter then produces a verbatim transcript of the deposition that serves as sworn preliminary testimony to be provided to the judge and others before a case goes to trial.

“Defendant Kevin Van Ostenbridge, by and through his undersigned attorneys, hereby files his Motion for Protective Order related to the deposition noticed for March 12. Wherefore, defendant Kevin Van Ostenbridge, respectfully requests that this court enter a protective order prohibiting the taking of his deposition, or in the alternative, requiring that the deposition be taken after the conclusion of the FDLE investigation with limiting instructions as to the scope of questioning to be allowed,” Bentley stated in his March 1 motion.  

Van Ostenbridge seeks protective order in public records case
Attorney Morgan Bentley is representing Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
Photo: Bentley Law Firm

“Van Ostenbridge has produced all items requested by plaintiff. Nonetheless, on February 19, plaintiff filed his notice of taking deposition, scheduling the deposition of Van Ostenbridge for March 12, at 10 a.m. Such deposition is improper in the context of the current litigation, the purpose of which was to obtain documents. As such documents have been produced, there is no ongoing purpose and no need to take the deposition of Van Ostenbridge other than to annoy and harass,” Bentley’s motion states.

“Moreover, there exists a pending Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation. The FDLE investigation centers on the same issues as those involved in this case. As such, during the pendency of that investigation, Van Ostenbridge will necessarily invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions related to any matters subject to the investigation,” Bentley stated in his motion.

In his motion, Bentley also stated, “Further, the instant case is solely in regard to Ch. 119 Public Records issues. It appears that the deposition is intended to elicit questioning related to Ch. 286, Sunshine Act issues. This line of questioning would obviously be irrelevant to any Public Records issues and not designed to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

“Given these issues, it follows that any deposition of Van Ostenbridge on these issues will be fruitless. Plaintiff’s insistence at proceeding with the deposition, over counsel’s objection, is merely further indicative of his intention to annoy and harass Van Ostenbridge,” Bentley stated in his motion.

Barfield records request

When contacted Tuesday, Barfield said, “The litigation is related to the commissioners’ compliance with Florida’s open-government laws, which includes the Public Records Act and the Government in the Sunshine law. The purpose of the pending litigation is to ensure that all records responsive to the initial request have been produced. I have many questions about the production of records and whether it was a full and complete production. That is why I scheduled Kevin Van Ostenbridge’s deposition.”

Van Ostenbridge seeks protective order in public records case
Paralegal Michael Barfield wants to depose Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge under oath. Photo: Joe Hendricks

When making his initial records requests, Barfield sought from Baugh, Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge all emails, text messages and other electronic forms of communication between Nov. 3 and Nov. 20. He also sought a detailed phone log of all calls made or received for that same period.

Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge were elected on Nov. 3. According to Barfield, they then became subject to the Public Records Act and the Sunshine Law that night, even though they were not sworn into office until Nov. 17. Baugh was reelected on Nov. 3 and as an incumbent commissioner she was already subject to the Public Records Act and Sunshine Law at that time. 

The special county commission meeting on Nov. 19 was scheduled at Van Ostenbridge’s request, and in response to his desire to discuss the county’s legal rights in the event of a COVID-19-related federal shutdown. During that meeting, Van Ostenbridge then proposed terminating Coryea and he made a motion to put Coryea on notice her termination would be addressed at another meeting in early December. Kruse, Satcher and Baugh supported Van Ostenbridge’s motion. Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore opposed it and the motion passed by a 4-3 vote.

During that Nov. 19 meeting, Bellamy said the previously unannounced efforts to oust Coryea appeared to be “premeditated.” Whitmore described the termination efforts as “orchestrated.” Servia described them as “reckless” and “dangerous.”

Those initial terminations efforts were later abandoned, then reinitiated for a second time by Kruse in late January and finally settled with a $204,000 separation agreement Coryea and the commission mutually agreed to on Feb. 23. 

On Thursday morning, Barfield filed his response to Bentley’s March 1 motion.

League of Women Voters believes county charter poses too much risk

MANATEE COUNTY – The League of Women Voters of Manatee County (LWV) no longer fully supports Manatee County becoming a charter government at this time.

On Tuesday, the League issued a written statement in response to the charter-related Anna Maria City Commission work session that took place on Monday.
Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse has been leading the latest effort to make Manatee County the 21st chartered county in Florida and he initiated preliminary discussion about a potential county charter during the Feb. 2 Council of Governments meeting.

As a non-charter county, the Manatee County government is structured, organized and operated according to state statutes. During the Council of Governments meeting, Kruse said the adoption of a county charter would allow the county’s registered voters to impose commission term limits, removal from office procedures, campaign finance restrictions and more if so desired.

During that meeting, several mayors, commissioners and city officials from Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, Bradenton, Palmetto and Longboat Key expressed concerns and/or opposition to the pursuit of a county charter.

The city officials’ primary concern was the fear that the initial county charter could be written or amended later in a manner that would allow the county and the county commission to enact laws, regulations and codes that could potentially preempt and nullify city ordinances, regulations and codes – including those that pertain to land use, development and the use of public beaches.

In response to those concerns, Kruse claimed a “starter charter” could be written in a manner that would not supersede existing city laws, codes and regulations. He also said a starter charter could include a provision that would require at least 60% support from county voters in order to later amend it.

As part of the law firm that serves as the city attorneys’ office for the city of Anna Maria, attorney Wade Vose has stated on more than one occasion that a 60% charter amendment threshold would violate the Florida Constitution.

LWV statement

The League of Women Voters’ written statement begins by addressing the 60% threshold.

“Let us start with the poison pill for Manatee County charter government. State regulations require changes to a county charter be voted with a 50% + one person approval. A county is not allowed to put that bar at 60% or 66%. This makes changes to a charter fairly easy to pass,” the LWV statement says.

“Monday, Anna Maria hosted a work session with Wade Vose, an eminently qualified attorney who has worked extensively on charter revision commissions, and on other charter related issues. His presentation was only to point out the risks to municipalities of charter. It had none of the advantages (which are still significant) that are the reason the League of Women Voters of Manatee County supports charter.

“The major fear of the municipalities is preemption of their regulations and ordinances by the county, especially land use preemption. This can easily be rectified with a provision in the charter that states that the county cannot override any municipal provisions,” the statement says.

“Now we come to the reason that the Manatee charter government will not fly under current state regulations. The state has dictated that a charter county must have 50% +one person to change the charter and this restriction makes it too easy to change the charter. Even if a provision is put in the charter prohibiting the county from overriding city ordinances, the cities will not want, nor should they, to take any chance that at some future election that provision would be eliminated.  
“An example: Manatee becomes a charter county and has a provision that the county will not override municipal ordinances. Four Seasons wants to put a resort hotel in Anna Maria. They could do massive advertising and give large infusions money to commissioner’s campaigns. With only 50% plus one needed to pass, they could use their influence to get this provision voted out of the charter. Then the commission could allow the resort hotel on the grounds that we should allow people to do what they want with their property and it will bring jobs.

“As much as the League supports charter government for Manatee County for all the flexibility and citizen input it allows, until the State of Florida allows charters to have a higher threshold for changes to the charter, the risks of manipulation and undue influence are too high,” the LWV statement concludes.

$204,000 Coryea separation agreement finalized

Coryea separation agreement finalized
Cheri Coryea’s tenure as as county administrator came to an end on Tuesday.
Photo: Joe Hendricks

BRADENTON – The Manatee County Commission, on Tuesday, voted 6-1 to accept a separation agreement that at the end of the day ended Cheri Coryea’s two-year tenure as the county administrator, and her 30-year tenure as a county employee.

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy cast the lone opposition vote to the separation agreement. He said he could not support an agreement that resulted in Coryea vacating her administrator’s role.

The separation agreement calls for the county to pay Coryea a lump sum payment of approximately $204,000, minus any taxes to be deducted. The separation agreement is not a termination and it is not a resignation.

The commission-approved separation agreement includes 20 weeks of regular pay per Coryea’s $192,000 annual salary. The separation agreement also includes 400 hours of paid leave, 500 hours of sick leave pay and 197 hours of compensatory time pay.

Before the separation agreement vote took place, Commissioner Carol Whitmore unsuccessfully sought to have Coryea’s vacation pay increased to 1,000 hours.

Before that 6-1 vote occurred, the commission rejected by 4-3 vote Commissioner Reggie Bellamy’s motion to discontinue the separation discussion and give Coryea one year to prove she can move the county forward. Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Kevin Van Ostenbridge, George Kruse and James Satcher opposed Bellamy’s motion. Bellamy, Whitmore and Commissioner Misty Servia supported it.

The commission-approved separation agreement brings to an end two previous efforts to terminate Coryea. Those efforts were first initiated by Van Ostenbridge in November, and then again by Kruse in January,

Acting county administrator

After a short break, the commission then engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding the appointment of an acting county administrator.

The commission ultimately voted 4-3 in opposition to hiring Venice-based attorney and former Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines to serve as acting county administrator while a search for a new county administrator is conducted.

Coryea separation agreement finalized
The commission majority opposed Charles Hines serving as acting county administrator. Photo: Joe Hendricks

Commissioners Baugh, Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge opposed Hines’ temporary hiring, which was previously proposed by County Attorney Bill Clague. Bellamy, Servia and Whitmore supported hiring Hines.  

Before those votes were cast, school board member Dr. Scott Hopes expressed interest in the acting county administrator’s job.

Van Ostenbridge and James Satcher also touted Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance President and CEO Dom DiMaio as a potential candidate.

“Dom DiMaio’s beating down my door. I’ve talked to Dom a couple times as well,” Van Ostenbridge said. “DiMaio’s not here, but he seems pretty interested the way he blows my phone up.”

During public comment, county resident Carol Felts expressed concerns about DiMaio’s connections to developer Carlos Beruff. She also oppossed Hopes serving in that role.

Satcher mentioned Rick Mills as another potential candidate. Mills formerly served as superintendent of the School Board District of Manatee County.

After another short recess, the commission voted 6-1 in favor of appointing current Deputy County Administrator Karen Stewart to serve as the acting county administrator, but only until March 23. It was noted during the meeting that Stewart is not interested in serving in that role on an extended or permanent basis.

Coryea separation agreement finalized
Karen Stewart will serve as acting county administrator until March 23.
Photo: Joe Hendricks

As a final action, the commission voted 7-0 to direct Clague to draft a contract and accompanying resolution for the position of acting county administrator, to be presented to the commission no later than the commission’s land use meeting on March 4.

The commission will then have until March 23 to appoint someone to serve as acting county administrator while a search for a permanent county administrator is conducted. Van Ostenbridge expressed hope that the

Kruse call log reveals private communications between commissioners


County Commissioner George Kruse’s private communications have raised concerns about potential Sunshine Law violations. (Photo by Joe Hendricks)

MANATEE COUNTY –County Commissioner George Kruse’s call log indicates he’s had private communications with fellow-commissioners Vanessa Baugh, James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge since being elected on Nov. 3.

It is not illegal for members of the same elected body to communicate by phone, text message or email, but it is a violation of Florida Sunshine Law if they discuss anything that has, will or could foreseeably come before them as official county business.

On Tuesday, Kruse provided paralegal Michael Barfield with a call log and a copy of an recent text message exchange he had with Satcher. Kruse provided these documents in response to the public records request he received from Barfield on Friday Nov. 20.

Baugh, Satcher, Van Ostenbridge and former commissioner Steve Jonsson received similar records requests, and all were given until Friday, Dec. 4 to respond. Barfield made his records request according Florida’s Public Records Act.

According to Kruse’s call log, he had, or attempted to have, 16 telephone conversations with Baugh during the Nov. 3 to Nov. 20 timeframe specified in Barfield’s records request.

Kruse had three phone communications with Satcher and two with Van Ostenbridge during that same time. He also made one call and received one call from developer Carlos Beruff, and on Nov. 20, Kruse called Circuit Court Judge Edward Nicholas.

On Tuesday, Nov. 17 Kruse, Satcher and Van Ostenbridge were sworn in as new commissioners, joined by Baugh, who was elected to another term. Later that day, they participated in their first commission work meeting. That night, Kruse left Satcher a voice mail at 6:39 p.m. and called him again at 10:18 p.m. At 10:22 p.m., Kruse called Baugh, and he called her again at 9 a.m. the following morning.

At 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, Kruse sent Satcher a text message that said, “Ignore our call the other night. Stick to original.”

During the Nov. 19 commission work meeting that took place later that morning, the county commission adopted by 4-3 vote a county resolution presented by Baugh with no public notice that now allows the commission to change its meeting procedures while a meeting is in progress, with no advance notice to the public.

“Any of the foregoing rules may be waived at any board meeting then in session by a majority vote of the board, unless such waiver is in conflict with state or local law,” according to Resolution 20-191.

Van Ostenbridge then initiated a discussion, with no advance public notice, that resulted in a 4-3 vote to put County Administrator Cheri Coryea on notice that her potential termination would be discussed and determined on Wednesday, Jan. 6.

Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore opposed the Nov. 19 actions initiated by Baugh and Van Ostenbridge.

Bellamy said the efforts to terminate Coryea seemed “premeditated” and Whitmore said they seemed “orchestrated.”

Barfield began submitting his records requests the following day.

Barfield’s reaction

“It’s a bombshell,” Barfield said Wednesday afternoon when discussing these initial discoveries.

According to Barfield, the three new commissioners became subject to the Public Records Act and the Florida Sunshine Law once the election results were known on Nov. 3. As an incumbent, Baugh was already required to comply with the Public Records Act and the Sunshine Law.   

“There’s 16 calls between Vanessa Baugh and George Kruse at various times,” Barfield said.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh has apparently had several phone conversations with Commissioner George Kruse. (Photo by Joe Hendricks)

“That message about ‘ignore the other night’ is so telling, coming hours before the Nov. 19 meeting began. It seems to me this is strong evidence of coordination in advance of a meeting,” Barfield said.

Wide-ranging concerns

Barfield said Baugh still had not provided him with an original draft copy of the resolution she presented with no public notice.

Barfield said Baugh’s official county emails indicate she had a conversation with the county attorney’s office on Nov. 18 about her requested resolution but did not provide that office with a digital copy of her document.  

“To date, she has not produced that record. Vanessa did provide a photograph of the draft language of the resolution,” Barfield said.

Barfield questions whether Baugh or someone else wrote the original draft of that resolution.

Barfield also said he spoke with two people who attended the post-meeting farewell ceremony for departing commissioners Betsy Benac, Steve Jonsson and Priscilla Trace on Nov. 10.

Barfield said he was told that Baugh suggested to ceremony attendee Tara Poulton that there might be a job opening at the county soon. Poulton lives in Bradenton and serves as the Economic Development Director for DeSoto County.

“The people I talked to on the record said they heard Vanessa say there’s going to be a change in the Manatee County administration very soon,” Barfield said of the farewell ceremony that preceded the Coryea termination discussion by nine days.

When contacted Wednesday afternoon, Poulton said she attended the farewell ceremony to say goodbye to Benac and Trace.

Poulton was asked if Baugh said anything about applying for the county administrator’s position.

“It was such a casual conversation. She said something to the effect of ‘You never know, we might have a position open.’ There was no mention of any specific position opening up,” Poulton said.

When asked if she’s had any contact with Baugh since then, Poulton said, “No, none whatsoever. And I have no intention of applying for the county administrator’s position if it opens up.”

Still awaiting records

Barfield said he received some preliminary records from Van Ostenbridge Wednesday afternoon and was told he’d receive copies of his Van Ostenbridge’s text messages and phone log on Thursday.  

Regarding Baugh, he said, “I received a couple emails from her official county account and a phone log from her official county phone that has virtually nothing on it. I’ve received nothing from her private email accounts or her private cell phone, including her text messages and phone log.”

Barfield said Satcher produced some records Tuesday night that he was still reviewing.

When asked where all of this might be headed, Barfield said, “I’m still collecting evidence.”