MANATEE COUNTY — Despite the 2024 primary election being more than ten months off, and the general election more than a year away, some Manatee County voters are receiving familiar unsolicited partisan emails to their inboxes. While the political tactic may be leaving some voters feeling as though they are experiencing deja vu, the political strategy may not be the only thing that is familiar to local elections of the recent past.
A newly formed group calling itself the Real Manatee County Conservatives began pushing out the unsolicited emails more than a week ago. Since the delivery of its first email blast, the group has also created a Facebook business page and blog.
Leading up to the county’s 2022 elections—in early 2021—a mass email campaign was launched by a group going by the name of Manatee Concerned Citizens. The group set out to “inform” local voters about issues pertaining to county commissioners. If you were one of the registered voters to receive the emails from the Manatee Concerned Citizens group, you might recall the sort of unsolicited content that was delivered to your inbox.
Many members of the public—and even our publication—questioned who the nameless “concerned citizens” of Manatee County were. Each of the early emails included a mailing address to “reach out” with feedback, and despite the group claiming they were concerned citizens of Manatee County, the physical address was a residential address in Pinellas County.
Click here to see a sample of the emails sent to local voters by Manatee Concerned Citizens in 2021. The group's Facebook page and MailChimp has since been dissolved.
When the Manatee Concerned Citzens’ emails first arrived in local voters’ inboxes in Feb. 2021, a simple online search of the group’s stated mailing address revealed that the address was the home address of an individual by the name of Nicholas Grant.
According to his LinkedIn, Grant was a full-time employee of the Tampa-based political consulting firm, Strategic Image Management (SIMWINS), from Oct. 2017 through Dec. 2021. SIMWINS is half-owned and operated by political consultant Anthony Pedicini.
As our publication has reported extensively, six of Manatee County’s current commissioners were clients of Pedicini’s during their campaigns. Until recently, it had been all seven commissioners until Vanessa Baugh resigned and the governor appointed Ray Turner to finish her term. Over time, numerous public record text messages have revealed that Pedicini has continued to engage commissioners on policy and personal matters well beyond his clients having won their respective races and their campaigns concluded.
The latest political emailing group, Real Manatee County Conservatives, is being run by an individual named Jennings Lawton DePriest. TBT was able to confirm that DePriest is the individual behind the group, based on multiple facts.
First, each blog post made by the group contains HTML code that is viewable to the user when “inspect data” is selected. HTML code is a computer language, a formatting system for displaying material retrieved over the internet. It scripts websites, instructing how the website will be displayed. Often, HTML can also reveal the author of a website or a username.
TBT utilized HTML inspect data last year to discover that someone with a username of “Anthony” had been creating draft redistricting maps for Manatee County that former Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was submitting into the process as her own.
On each of the Real Manatee County Conservatives’ blog posts, the same name appeared as the author, “JenningsLawton.” See the image below for an example from one such post and click here to see the name stored in HTML on each of the group’s blog posts.
The second confirmation that “JenningsLawton” is Jennings Lawton DePriest, is that the emails being sent to unexpecting Manatee voters are being sent from the email address “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
According to SunBiz.org, Top Lobster LLC is managed by DePriest. During the county’s 2022 commission races, DePriest was listed as the LLC’s registered agent and manager, but the registration information for the Top Lobster has since been revised to include a secondary LLC as its registered agent, and DePriest only as manager.
According to Top Lobster's website, the business is “an elite team of digital assassins who do what it takes to win.”
Immediately upon entering the website, a black and white banner asks the following question, “When the government is the only thing standing between you and millions of dollars in revenue – you have two choices: you can dominate or you can disappear. Which will you choose?”
The webpage describes the company’s approach in part by stating, “To truly dominate modern politics, you have to prove that their reelection is directly tied to being on your side.”
To view a PDF capture of the entire Top Lobster website, click here.
During Manatee County’s 2022 commission races, Top Lobster appeared as the likely entity behind mass text messages pushed out against then-incumbent District 4 Commissioner Misty Servia. Top Lobster even appears as a small donor in the 2022 District 4 challenger Mike Rahn’s campaign finance reports.
While at least two mass text messages that were pushed out attacking Servia were without a disclaimer as to who was behind the texts, two others did disclose the PACs that had paid for the messaging.
The text messages, which were sent within the months of July and August 2022, showed as having been funded by two separate PACs; the Voter Response PAC and the Responsible Leadership Committee INC PAC. Campaign finance activity reported to the state by both PACs shows payments to Top Lobster.
David Ramba’s Voter Response PAC shows that in August 2022, the political committee paid Top Lobster $2,247 for “texting, text messaging, digital ads.” The PAC's most recent financial reports show that in February of this year, Voter Response paid Top Lobster another $4,690 for similar services.
The Responsible Leadership Committee PAC, run by Stafford Jones, reported that it paid Top Lobster for “advertising” services between July and August 2022. In total, there are five payments reported to Top Lobster from the PAC, totaling more than $16,000.
A separate PAC, Make America Great Again, also reported a small payment to Top Lobster in August 2022. The MAGA PAC is registered to Eric Robinson and many of the glossy electioneering mailers that were delivered to registered voters across Manatee County in 2020 and 2022 were reported as having been paid for by the MAGA PAC.
In July 2022, TBT reported on each of the PACs mentioned above and provided the public with some insights into the registered agents of the PACs.
But these payments to Top Lobster are not the only clue that DePriest and his company were a likely source of text messages attacking a former incumbent commissioner to the benefit of the current District 4 Commissioner Mike Rahn. Numerous social media exchanges that played out publicly during the 2022 campaigns show that DePriest, Pedicini, and sometimes Commissioners Van Ostenbridge, Baugh, and Rahn would join together in attacking Servia.
In one such Facebook post, the former commissioner called out DePriest directly for being behind the text messages that were being sent out against her. In the comments of the post, Servia shared photos of the PAC financial reports and the SunBiz registration of Top Lobster. Much of the exchange is still accessible today, click here to view it.
Servia’s efforts to make public DePriest’s role in campaign attacks against her led to DePriest making a Facebook post of his own accusing Servia of having “doxxed” him and alleging that by sharing his business registration information, Servia put his family at risk. DePriest’s post was also still available at the time of this report’s publication, click here, or here.
A scroll back through Servia’s former commissioner Facebook and “X” (Twitter) profiles, as well as DePriest and Pedicini’s accounts on both platforms, reveals multiple ugly back-and-forths in 2022. As of this story’s publication, DePriest’s Facebook profile also displays posts from after the 2022 elections congratulating Rahn on his campaign win.
Up until last Friday, the Real Manatee County Conservatives emails were largely focused on promoting Manatee County Commissioners Van Ostenbridge, Satcher, Turner, Rahn, Ballard, and Bearden as the county’s "most conservative conservatives" that the commission has ever had. Notably, the Real Manatee County Conservatives either avoid mentioning the commission’s seventh commissioner George Kruse, or when mentioned, the writings criticize him.
The emails and blog posts have since gone from praising the commission’s success on traffic improvements, veteran’s housing, and defending private property rights, to most recently attacking a local environmental group—Suncoast Waterkeeper—as a “Soros-backed” organization.
Suncoast Waterkeeper has been outspoken against the commission’s effort to roll back local wetland protections to the benefit of developers and most recently members of the organization, including the group’s Executive Director Dr. Abbey Tyrna, were speakers at an informational panel to help educate the public about the importance of protecting local wetlands and coastal waters.
Despite immense bipartisan public pleading, in August the BOCC voted 6-1 in support of transmitting a comp plan text amendment to the state that would reduce local wetland protections. Now the measure is scheduled to return to the board for an adoption hearing, tentatively on Oct. 5. If approved by a board majority, the reduction in wetland protections will officially become county policy.
To read TBT’s previous reporting on the wetland protection text amendment, click here.
Perhaps coincidentally, the owner of Top Lobster, DePriest, has familial ties to the Manatee County Planning Commission.
Facebook profiles for DePriest and his wife show that DePriest is the son-in-law of Planning Commissioner Richard Bedford. As TBT reported last month, prior to the wetland protection text amendment going before planning commissioners, the BOCC seemingly rushed to fill a planning commission vacancy created when Ray Turner—who previously served on the county’s planning commission—was appointed to the BOCC by Governor Ron DeSantis.
DePriest’s father-in-law was one of only two planning commissioners who spoke in support of the measure being recommended for adoption by the BOCC, though the planning commission ultimately voted 4-2 to not recommend its adoption.
Bedford had served on the planning commission in the past and was the former vice president of planning for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. According to his LinkedIn, he is currently the President and CEO of Real Estate And Land (REAL) Consulting, LLC.
While the financial reports of the PACs who had made payments to Top Lobster in 2022 do not reveal any significant payments to Top Lobster in 2023, another PAC with ties to Manatee County Commissioners and Pedicini has reported significant payments to DePriest.
The Save Our Quality of Life PAC reported two payments to Top Lobster—one in Feb. and the other in April. The combined total of the two payouts was more than $101,000.
The PAC is registered to Wendy K. White. According to records on file with the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections, White was also Commissioner Rahn’s campaign treasurer in 2022.
Rahn, a “Life Director,” of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (BIA) and former member, was recently accused of sunshine violations for his alleged efforts to pressure one of the county’s former acting administrators, Lee Washington, into appointing BIA President Jon Mast as a deputy county administrator.
The detailed allegations presented by Washington in a whistleblower complaint he submitted to the county attorney were additionally troubling given that Mast had played a role in delivering to employees of the county's Development Services Department a “BIA white paper” that provided significant suggested revisions—and deletions—to the county’s land development code.
Campaign finance activity reported to the state for the Save Our Quality of Life PAC also showed that Pedicini’s PAC—Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy—has made significant contributions to White’s PAC in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
In 2021, Pedicini’s PAC contributed $100,000 to White’s PAC. In 2022, Pedicini’s PAC contributed another $135,000 to White’s PAC according to financial disclosures—however, later in 2022, White’s PAC reported it had contributed $100,000 back into Pedicini’s PAC.
In April of 2023, Pedicini’s PAC is reported to have contributed $95,000 to White’s PAC.
The reported expenditures for White’s PAC also show that Save Our Quality of Life paid Pedicini’s firm, SIMWINS, $104,000 in 2021. In 2022, White’s PAC reported nearly a dozen expenditure payments to SIMWINS totaling more than $162,000.
The final confirmation that Jennings DePriest and his Top Lobster LLC are running the newly formed Real Manatee County Conservatives came on Friday evening when the group pushed a mass text message sharing the blog post about local wetland regulations. The texts arrived on several Manatee County voters' cell phones around 5:30 p.m.
The text blast (click here to view) was noted as being paid for by the Keep Florida Winning PAC. The political committee is relatively new according to Florida Department of State records. The PAC was first registered in December of 2022, and so far has less than $700 reported on its financial activity reports. Interestingly, the PAC's registry records report no registered agent, but the PAC's treasurer is reported as Eric Robinson—also known as the "prince of dark money" and who was listed as Manatee County Commissioner Amanda Ballard's 2022 campaign treasurer.
The Keep Florida Winning PAC's chairperson is reported in state political committee registration records as Jennings DePriest.