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FLCGA’s public watchdog efforts lead to arrest of county’s former top official

Former Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes’ jail mugshot is what government accountability looks like. 

The 63-year-old Hopes was charged Thursday with three felony crimes – notary fraud, grand theft, and felony use of a public record – following a police investigation sparked by the Florida Center for Government Accountability. 

FLCGA, which publishes the Florida Trident, began investigating Hopes back in 2022, when Public Access Director Michael Barfield learned of alleged wrongdoing by the official. When Barfield made a public records request for his text messages, Hopes failed to fully release the records, prompting FLCGA to file a lawsuit to demand compliance with Florida’s Public Records Act. 

The lawsuit uncovered stunning wrongdoing by the county and broad noncompliance with the Public Records Act due to the county’s failure to archive text messages. In a pleading filed with the Manatee County Circuit Court in September 2022, the county admitted the Public Records Act had been violated and consented to entry of a final judgment.

County Commissioner Kevin Ostenbridge

Additionally, the county’s former public records manager, Debbie Scaccianoce, testified at deposition that Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Ostenbridge told her he didn’t want her to release his text messages, which were required to be released by law. 

“That was the conversation, but I did not comply [with Ostenbridge’s request],” said Scaccianoce, an 11-year county employee. “The messages were released and I was fired within two days.” 

It was Ostenbridge who personally tapped Hopes, a former Manatee County school board member, to be the county’s top official in 2021. Hopes held the position until February 2023, when he abruptly resigned from the post. 

After Hopes’ resignation, FLCGA’s Barfield learned he had wiped his county cellphone, tablet, and laptop of public records. Barfield then filed a criminal complaint, which prompted a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigation that culminated in the State Attorney’s Office criminal filings against Hopes on Thursday. 

In its investigation, sheriff’s detectives found that Hopes had indeed unlawfully destroyed public records, according to MCSO’s probable cause affidavit. 

Sheriff’s deputies additionally found that Hopes violated state notary laws and collected nearly $13,000 in pay he wasn’t legally entitled to, most of it in the form of overtime during emergency responses to hurricanes Ian and Nicole.

In the case of Hurricane Nicole, investigators found that Hopes not only was ineligible for the extra pay but was out of the country on vacation at the time, according to the affidavit. All three felony counts are third-degree felonies punishable by up to five years in prison each. 

FLCGA’s public records  lawsuit against Manatee County remains in active litigation.