BRADENTON — In a recently published audit report, the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller's Division of Inspector General identified several county Purchasing Card transactions that violated established rules and procedures. The transactions were made by former county administration officials and Commission Chairman Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
The county’s Purchasing Card Program (P-Card) is designed for efficiency in the processing of small purchases by county cardholders. The program is overseen by the Purchasing Division of the county’s Department of Financial Management (FMD).
Published to the Clerk’s website on May 30, the report noted that the audit—which was originally initiated as a follow-up to previous years’ audits of the P-Card program—was expanded at the request of FMD management.
The audit of the P-Card Program examined transactions for the period beginning on October 5, 2019, through November 30, 2022.
The IG’s report noted several P-Card transactions that lacked clear documentation or explanation to support the public purpose of the expenditures. Included among the identified transactions were purchases made by Commissioner Van Ostenbridge.
According to the audit report, in October 2021, Van Ostenbridge used a county P-Card to purchase detailed voter data of constituents within his district.
"One (1) purchase for $1,609 was made by Commissioner Van Ostenbridge from McShane LLC, a Nevada-based political consulting firm, for the purchase of District 3 registered voter data. According to the commissioner and his aide, the purchase was to obtain a district-wide (District 3) resident email list for distribution of the commissioner's non-political, informational email newsletter. However, in addition to including email addresses for more than 19,000 registered voters, the data purchased also contained more than 200 fields of personal and voter demographic information of the individuals," the report detailed.
Van Ostenbridge also made a purchase of $77 from an email verification company, NeverBounce. The charge was for the validation of the email addresses he received through the purchase of constituent voter data. The IG noted that NeverBounce emailed a final list of validated email addresses directly to Van Ostenbridge’s aide.
"According to the commissioner’s aide, he mistakenly provided his personal email address to the vendor. However, this gives the appearance of a non-business use, and is inappropriate," the report’s findings state.
Van Ostenbridge and his aide told investigators that the purchases were only intended for the purpose of creating an email list of District 3 voters in order for the commissioner to send out an informational (nonpolitical) monthly newsletter. The chairman also reportedly spent $100 a month on a bulk email-sending service, bringing his newsletter-related P-Card transaction total to $1,686.
While the IG’s report acknowledged that the newsletter was nonpolitical in nature, it also noted that the county government's Information Outreach Division includes five employees and has a 2023 annual budget of $483,924.
"No other expenditures of this nature were found for any of the other county commissioners. We did find that several county departments (Development Services, Information Outreach, Neighborhood Services, Natural Resources, Sports and Leisure Services) also send out mass emails through bulk email service providers. However, a survey of those departments found that none had purchased any of the recipients’ email addresses. Their email distribution lists were most often created by individuals/residents voluntarily subscribing to receive the emails through contact with county departments and/or the website, or at community events, at no cost to the county," the Inspector General wrote.
County P-Cards are intended only for authorized purchases which serve a public purpose. Cardholders are required to attend training on appropriate use, as well as applicable laws, rules and procedures. Upon completion of the program’s mandatory training, cardholders must agree to the program stipulation that any inappropriate transactions identified must be reimbursed by the user.
Having identified the purchase of voter data and related email services as inappropriate and without public purpose, Van Ostenbridge was asked to reimburse the county for the transaction. However, Van Ostenbridge disagreed with the determination that the purchases were without public purpose and refused to repay the tax dollars.
In Feb. 2023, Manatee County Clerk and Comptroller Angel Colonneso sought the legal opinion of an independent outside law firm who examined Van Ostenbridge’s purchases and analyzed the transactions against the legal standard of public purpose.
Having reviewed the expenditures and related documentation, John K. Londot Esq., of Greenberg Trauring, P.A., wrote that it was his professional opinion the purchases appeared to be "inappropriate" and "wasteful of taxpayer dollars."
Concerning the detailed voter data purchased by Van Ostenbridge, the attorney wrote, "To my surprise, it contained a massive amount of personal information about Manatee County voters in that district."
A shortened list of some of the data fields included in the spreadsheet about individual voters within Van Ostenbridge's district includes their full name, gender, birthdate, voter registration number, cellular and home telephone numbers, home address and GPS coordinates, political party affiliation (including that of household members), religious views, voter history, ethnicity, number of children, home market value, occupation, net worth, and whether the resident is a "persuadable" voter.
In addition, the data included identifying whether the residents had ever donated to a charitable or political organization, and whether they were likely to have supported former candidates Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. It also included data about a resident’s likely positions on dozens of political issues such as gun control, animal rights, abortion, LGBTQ+ issues, and one’s overall "political ideology."
In his analysis, the attorney wrote that the purchase appeared calculated to the benefit of Van Ostenbridge, and not to his district or the general public.
"In fact, it appears to be detrimental to residents in the district, as the purchase has potentially caused extensive personal information about individuals in his district to become subject to Florida’s broad public records law, at a significant expense of personal privacy," the attorney wrote to Colonneso.
Referencing the McShane LLC
website, which identifies the company's typical customer base as political candidates and political parties, the attorney noted, "...it conspicuously identifies itself as a 'political consulting team' that has 'worked for more than 50 elected officials, ballot initiatives, and Super PACS, across 27 states."
Summarizing his findings, the attorney concluded that not only did Van Ostenbridge's purchase appear to lack justification of public purpose, and, in fact, was a detriment to the more than 19,000 voters in District 3 whose detailed personal information was included in the data spreadsheet—which now exists as a public record subject to Florida’s public record law—but also, the data "appears likely to benefit third parties, particularly campaigns or political parties" and that "those interests appear to be far more than incidental, but instead appear to be the very purpose of the expenditures."
Problematic P-Card Transactions of Former Officials
Besides the troubling purchases made by Van Ostenbridge, the IG found multiple purchases made by the county’s former administrator Scott Hopes and former deputy county administrator Robert Reinshuttle, which also appeared to lack public purpose or were in violation of rules and procedures. Some of these expenditures were recurring charges, which the county’s P-Card Manual prohibits unless pre-approved by a purchasing official.
From July 2022, through November 2022, Hopes used a P-Card for five transactions totaling $300. The charges were for a two-device monthly subscription for in-flight Wifi on American Airlines at a cost of $60 per month. The audit report noted that Hopes only traveled with the airline two times in five months causing an unnecessary expense of $180 for three months of unused service.
The IG’s audit also identified four recurring charges for monthly car wash packages that both the former administrator and former deputy county administrator Reinshuttle used to service their county vehicles. The charges for the monthly car services ended in February of 2022, the report noted, after both Hopes and Reinshuttle separated from the county.
In September and October of 2022, the former administrator made two purchases totaling $50 for tickets to attend local partisan luncheons. The report included that documentation provided to the Clerk’s Finance Office for these purchases did not include anything to support the luncheons as being county-business related or of a public purpose.
Additionally in October, Hopes authorized the purchase of five tickets for county employees to attend an award ceremony for a deputy county administrator. The report details that the award was "personal" and from a "host organization." The purchases were made by employees within the Departments of County Administration, Property Management, and Development Services.
Although the IG’s report does not name the deputy administrator who received the award, or the outside organization that awarded it, Deputy County Administrator, and then-Director of the Department of Development Services, Courtney De Pol was chosen by the Business Observer
for its 2022, "40 under 40" list.
The audit also identified travel expenses charged by former administrator Hopes and former deputy administrator Reinshuttle that were in violation of rules and procedures. Transactions totaling $646.62 were charged for hotel stays at a luxury brand hotel in May 2022, for county-related travel to Washington, D.C.
On the trip, Hopes and Reinshuttle, along with three commissioners, stayed at a Ritz Carlton, while the other commissioners chose budget accommodations. Although the three commissioners who also stayed at the Ritz Carlton agreed to reimburse their lodging upgrades back to the county, Hopes and Reinshuttle did not.
The Clerk’s Office was able to recover several of the inappropriate transactions the IG identified as belonging to Hopes and Reinshuttle by docking final paychecks after the two left the organization earlier this year.
The luncheons attended by Hopes at taxpayers’ expense, hotel accommodations, as well as some parking fees, taxi fares, and airline meal reimbursements identified through the audit process, were all funds recovered by the county’s payroll department through the docking of paychecks. Reinshuttle’s final paycheck was docked for his D.C. hotel charges.
In the report, the IG reported having found that, overall, the county’s Purchasing Card Program was operating efficiently and generally in compliance. No county employees outside of administration were found to have completed transactions that were not of a legitimate county or public purpose.
Numerous "split" transactions were identified from multiple county employees from across the organization, but the report also noted that comparisons to other local counties revealed a need to raise the one-time purchase limit.
Purchasing card procedures stipulate that single purchases are not to be artificially split into two or more transactions either by one or more cardholders, so as to avoid or circumvent the single transaction or cardholder limits.
The audit found 27 transactions totaling $48,038 where it appeared that a single cardholder split a single purchase into two or more transactions on the same day, or over multiple days. Another 17 transactions totaling $25,814 were identified where it appeared that multiple cardholders from the same department, on the same day, split single purchases.
TBT reviewed spreadsheet details of the identified split purchases and found that all appeared related to county business and seemed to be valid expenditures.
The audit also determined that while supporting documentation from P-Card purchases was submitted by county employees to the Clerk’s Finance Office on the 10th of each month as required, supporting documentation for purchases made by administration officials was not always submitted in such a timely manner.
The report noted that of the 303 transactions from commissioners and county administration officials that were examined, 17 percent lacked the timely submission of required documentation.
The audit also revealed that the county’s Per Diem and Travel Reimbursement Procedure expired on July 1, 2020. The report states that even though updated procedures were drafted by county administration and were set to be issued in the fall of 2020, they were never issued.
"It was also noted that many other procedures issued by county administration and published on the county’s iNet were expired," the report included.
Recommended improvements to the county’s Purchasing Card Program are anticipated to be implemented by Dec. 2023. Improvements intended to address some of the findings of the audit included updating procedures, enhancing training and strengthening controls.
Included in the recommendations provided by the IG’s report was the recommendation that Van Ostenbridge reimburse the county for the expenditures related to the purchase of constituent voter data and email addresses.
To read the full Purchasing Card Audit Report, including the legal analysis of John K. Londot Esq., of Greenberg Trauring, P.A., click here
, or visit the Inspector General Division page of the Manatee Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller’s website
. Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at email@example.com.