BRADENTON — On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office confirmed that MCSO is conducting an investigation into a complaint it received concerning former Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes. Hopes is alleged to have initiated a "wipe" of two county-issued electronic devices the day he departed from his position.
In the days following Hopes' sudden "mutual" separation—or alleged forced resignation—many in the public were left with questions. No official reason was given during an emergency meeting on February 7, explaining the cause of the Hopes’ abrupt departure.
In recent days, TBT obtained a copy of an email to Manatee County's public records division by Michael Barfield, the Director of Public Access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. Barfield submitted a request for public records in the days following the BOCC’s emergency meeting in which Hopes’ departure was announced.
In his email, Barfield requested that the county produce public records relating to any electronic devices assigned to Hopes, "or in the custody and control of Scott Hopes," on the day prior to the emergency meeting and the day of the meeting (Feb. 6 and Feb. 7).
Barfield specifically requested a record of any activity that may have been performed on Hopes' devices by the county's IT department, as well as a record of any files that may have been transferred to or from Hopes' devices and the location of any electronic data that may have been archived from his devices for retention by the county.
Last week, Barfield received an emailed response from Manatee County Public Record Assistant Dana Rawls. In response to his request seeking information about any work or activity performed by the county’s IT department on any of the devices assigned to, or in the custody of Hopes, Barfield received what appeared to be journal log entries created by staff from the IT Department, detailing activity performed at the request of Hopes.
In response to the remaining portions of his request for the public records of any files transferred, archived, or the location of such data, Barfield was told by email, "There are no records responsive to this request."
The logged activities of IT staff produced by the county’s records assistant appeared to offer some explanation as to why there were no other records available as responsive to Barfield’s request.
"All occurred on Feb. 7," Rawls wrote in response to Barfield's request.
At 1:25 p.m. Ron Hardy of the IT Dept noted: Notified by ITS Director Richardson that Administrator Hopes wanted to get a copy of contacts from his County issued telephone and was asked to send a staff member to Hopes’ Office on the 9th floor to assist.
At 1:28 p.m. Ron Hardy noted: Sent staff member Jonathan Hart (of IT Dept.) to Administrator Hopes’ Office to assist.
At 1:31 p.m. Ron Hardy noted: Received call from Jonathan Hart stating that Hopes was also asking for copies of some files on his County issued laptop and was requesting approval to move forward.
At 1:38 p.m. Ron Hardy noted: Called ITS Director (Drew) Richardson and requested and received approval to allow for copy of the files.
At 1:42 p.m. (approx) Ron Hardy noted: Jonathan Hart made copy of requested files and provided to Administrator Hopes on a USB drive.
At 1:45 p.m. (approx) Ron Hardy noted: Jonathan Hart contacted me and relayed that Administrator Hopes was inquiring whether we could forward his County issued phone to his personal cell phone. I advised Jonathan that I could not make approve that request and to have Administrator Hopes contact ITS Director Richardson. At that point, Administrator Hopes stated to "forget it" at which time he initiated a wipe of his county iPhone and gave his iPhone and iPad to Jonathan Hart.
At 2:00 p.m. (approx) Ron Hardy noted: Jonathan Hart came back to the 7th floor with Administrator Hopes’ laptop, iPhone, and iPad. He advised me that Hopes had wiped his iPhone and iPad.
At 2:50 p.m. (approx) Ron Hardy noted: Contacted Mike Hotaling as to a secure location where the devices could be stored. Mike Hotaling stated he would come on site and place the items in a safe located in the 7th Floor Data Center.
At 3:00 p.m. (approx.) Ron Hardy noted: Johnathan Hart and myself placed the devices in Mike Hotaling’s office in a location only known to myself, Jonathan and Mike Hotaling.
At 5:51 p.m. Mike Hotaling of IT Dept. noted: Placed sticky note labels on (3) devices, photographed, and placed in a safe in Admin datacenter.
Responding via email, Barfield told TBT that he was concerned by the information he received from the county in response to his request for public records.
"The response I received from the county that electronic devices had been erased raised alarms," Barfield wrote. "I filed a complaint because law enforcement is better equipped to investigate and determine if any laws have been violated."
Most specifically, Barfield cited his concerns as relating to sections 119.10(1)(b) and (2)(a), Florida Statutes, concerning penalties to public officers and employees who may commit violations of Florida Statute Chapter 119.
Florida's public records law is broad and includes requirements for the retention and preservation of public records, including that, "Whoever has custody of any public records shall deliver, at the expiration of his or her term of office, to his or her successor or, if there be none, to the records and information management program…" Chapter 119.021 (4)(a)
Besides requirements of state statutes, the Manatee County Information Technology Services Policy Manual also sets policies and procedures concerning electronic devices and data in possession of county employees—and how this data is to be handled.
From the IT Services Policy, last updated 2018, page 12, "Electronic Media Policy: County data shall be stored on County media including, but not limited to, hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and flash drives. Upon separation from the County, users must leave these assets with their supervisor. A user may not remove any data from the County upon separation unless prior written permission has been obtained from their supervisor."
"...ITS will establish and maintain standard procedures for this secure data destruction," the policy manual describes.
Also on page 12 of the manual, "Public Records: All data captured, created or stored electronically by users under the Board of County Commissioners may be considered a public record under Florida law. Therefore, such data must be properly retained, backed up, and recoverable upon request."
In an email, the Manatee County Sheriff’s PIO confirmed to TBT that they had received a citizen’s complaint on Feb. 23, in reference to a county-issued cell phone and county-issued tablet of the former county administrator.
"That complaint is currently being investigated," the MCSO’s PIO included in the emailed response to our request. "We aren’t able to release additional details of the investigation right now."
TBT was unable to reach Hopes for comment.
On Feb. 7, Manatee County Commissioners approved the terms of Hopes’ separation agreement to include that the administrator's resignation would be classified as "voluntary" and "without cause," while entitling Hopes to 120 days’ pay in one lump sum, along with all accrued vacation and sick leave, the amount he would have received in deferred compensation, and his current health insurance coverage through February 6, 2024. A severance that the Herald Tribune recently reported to total approximately $169k.
TBT will continue to follow this developing story and will provide updates as more information becomes available.
Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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