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Public Records Provide More Insight into the Purchase of District 3 Voter Data

BRADENTON — Public records are providing additional insights into a purchasing card transaction made by Manatee County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge. Although the commissioner maintained that the purchase was for a public purpose, Van Ostenbridge reimbursed the county on June 27. The repayment, however, has not reversed privacy concerns for the more than 19,000 county residents impacted by the transaction. 
Numerous public records recently reviewed by TBT are providing a broader view of the circumstances surrounding the transaction with the Las Vegas political consulting firm—including new details of a prior relationship between Van Ostenbridge’s aide and a representative of McShane LLC, conflicting legal opinions on "public purpose" written by an outside law firm and the county attorney, and the ultimate determination by the Manatee County Clerk/Comptroller that the purchase of detailed voter data by the commissioner was inappropriate. 
In a previous story published on June 25, TBT detailed the findings in a May 30 purchasing card audit report published by the Manatee County Clerk’s Office of the Inspector General. The audit reviewed numerous P-card transactions of county administration officials, county employees, and commissioners. While the review of many of the transactions cleared the majority of the purchases as appropriate, the clerk’s office determined some of the purchases were not permissible under the rules, procedures, and laws which guide what are permissible P-card transactions. 
One such transaction identified as not meeting the standard of "public purpose" was an Oct. 2021 purchase by Van Ostenbridge. Having determined the purchase of voter data from McShane LLC was inappropriate and not of a public purpose, Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller Angel Colonneso recommended the commissioner reimburse the county for the expenditure. 
Despite the clerk’s recommendation, Van Ostenbridge disagreed that the purchase did not qualify as a "public purpose" and for several months refused to reimburse the roughly $1,600 paid to the political consulting firm. 
According to Van Ostenbridge, the purchase was an appropriate expenditure because it was made in order to disseminate the commissioner’s District 3 informational newsletter—a position that the county attorney apparently agreed with according to a June 16 written legal opinion recently obtained by TBT

A Difference in Legal Opinion

On June 28, TBT published a follow-up story that shared back-dated copies of Van Ostenbridge’s newsletter that were collected with the help of the public. Our publication also submitted a public records request to the county requesting it produce all previously emailed versions of Van Ostenbridge’s newsletter, however, the county never fulfilled our request for records. 
In our effort to provide an informative follow-up, we also reached out to Van Ostenbridge via email requesting instructions we could provide in our report to inform members of the public on how they could sign up to receive the District 3 newsletter in the future. 
Van Ostenbridge’s aide, Jorge Arana, responded to our email and advised that residents of the commissioner’s district should email the office to request to be added to the emailing list. 
Roughly an hour after receiving the initial email which provided the information our publication had requested, Arana emailed again, writing "FYI" while forwarding an email of a June 16 legal opinion written by County Attorney Bill Clague. 
"Chairman Van Ostenbridge," Clague’s legal opinion began. "You have asked for the legal advice of my Office regarding the statements included in the Clerk’s May 30, 2023, Audit Report concerning the County’s P-Card Program, with respect to the purchase of a database made on your behalf. I provide the following response.
In Fall, 2021, you inquired of me whether the purchase of an email database of registered voters in your district would constitute a legally permissible use of public funds.  You confirmed that the database would be used to provide voters with a newsletter that would inform them of activities of Manatee County Government taking place in your district. Based on that information, I advised that such a purchase would constitute a legally permissible use of public funds. For the reasons explained below, I remain of that opinion.
In early 2023, you informed me that the Clerk had questioned the purchase. The Report states that the Clerk’s concern was motivated by the inclusion of political data in the database. You have informed me that at the time of purchase you were not aware that this additional information would be included in the database. You have also informed me that when your aide inquired of the vendor, he was informed that the vendor did not have the ability to remove this data from the database."
Clague’s written opinion continued, "...the Clerk concludes that the purchase does not serve a public purpose within the meaning of Florida law. The Clerk relies upon an opinion of counsel from the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, P.A. I have communicated directly with attorneys at Greenberg to express my concerns that: (a) the representation of the Clerk in this matter may constitute an impermissible conflict of interest, given Greenberg’s long-standing role as the County’s Bond Counsel; and (b) the opinion appears to reach legal conclusions based upon a misinterpretation of decisions of the Florida courts.  Greenberg has informed me that it has since withdrawn from its representation of the Clerk.  It has also provided written clarification (copy attached) of its legal analysis to address my concerns."
Clague’s opinion then goes on to challenge some of the specific case citations included in the Feb. 13 analysis by Greenberg Traurig. 
Click here to read County Attorney Clague’s June 16 legal opinion to Van Ostenbridge in full. 
Attached to Clague’s email was a copy of the June 16 "opinion clarification" written by John Londot of Greenberg Traurig PA. Londot’s original written opinion as included in the Inspector General's audit report, was that the purchase did not meet the general standard of "public purpose" and that Manatee Clerk and Comptroller Angel Colonneso was within her duties and responsibilities to seek to recover the expenditure.  
In the June 16 "clarification" of his initial opinion, Londot further affirmed to Clague his professional opinion that such a transaction would need to meet the standard of "public purpose" and that the purchase of detailed voter data by Van Ostenbridge did not appear to meet that general standard. 
Londot did concede in his follow-up to Clague that his Feb. 13 legal opinion was not "dispositive" of the issue—meaning it was not a legal ruling or final order on the matter. 
"...I was simply unable to conclude that the use of public funds met this general ‘public purpose’ requirement. Clerk Colonneso’s use of our opinion in her audit is not dispositive of the issue as our conclusion can certainly be disputed both in response to the audit as well as judicially if the county feels her finding is incorrect," Londot wrote. 
Clague also objected to Londot’s characterization that Van Ostenbridge’s P-card purchase was "wasteful of taxpayer dollars." Londot addressed Clague’s concern, writing, "That objection is valid inasmuch as the statement is neither a legal conclusion nor a premise upon which a legal conclusion depends."
To read Londot’s June 16 clarification provided to Clague in full, click here

Public records reviewed by TBT also showed that after the firm ended its representation of the Clerk in light of Clague's expressed concern of a possible conflict of interest due to Greenburg Traurig's longstanding role as the county’s bond counsel, Greenberg declined to seek any payment from the Clerk's office for the services the firm provided in relation to the P-card audit. 

TBT reached the county attorney to inquire whether the position he expressed in his June 16 legal opinion to Van Ostenbrdige remained unchanged. Clague declined to comment via email, citing his representation of the board of commissioners and county administration, writing, "We do not engage in discussions of legal issues with members of the public or press."

Additional Public Records

After receiving the unsolicited email of Clague’s legal opinion from Van Ostenbridge’s aide, TBT followed up by seeking additional records. 
On June 28 our publication requested the production of numerous public records relating to the audit report’s findings, Van Ostenbridge’s purchase, email communications of county officials, as well as copies of emails with representatives of Greenberg Traurig PA concerning its Feb. 13 legal opinion. 
To date, the county has not produced a single public record in response to our request. However, late last week, our publication did receive a significant amount of documentation from the Clerk of Circuit Court and the Office of the Inspector General. 
Before TBT had received the requested records, another publication published its own story on the Inspector General’s audit report and the purchase of voter data by Van Ostenbridge. 
On June 29, the Herald Tribune published a story that inaccurately reported that Greenberg Traurig PA had issued a revised opinion on June 16 in favor of Van Ostenbridge, "rather than Colonneso's office." 
But public record emails obtained by TBT reveal multiple correspondences that instead affirmed that the firm had not revised or retracted its initial analysis as provided by Londot on Feb. 13. 
In a June 2, 2023, email, Greenberg Traurig PA Chairman Fred Baggett wrote to Clerk Colonneso in regard to concerns raised by the county’s attorney. 
"Below is the email I sent to your county attorney this morning in an attempt to try and calm the waters and offer an opportunity for him to discuss the opinion we provided to you," Baggett’s email to Colonneso read. 
In the email Baggett provided of his correspondence to Clague, Baggett wrote that for years his office has represented the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers. Baggett explained to Clague that in that capacity his firm has advised the Association on the constitutional and statutory duties and responsibilities of county clerks. 
"Occasionally, a request is made by an individual Clerk as to a matter arising in their office which raises a question of their specific duty… We are careful in our conflict of interest review to disclose any adverse party and if found, seek to resolve the potential conflict," Baggett wrote. 
"...Our opinion was issued without regard as to who made the payment but rather if it appeared to be for a meaningful public purpose. This did not involve an act by the County but one by an individual with authority to use the P-card for an otherwise authorized purchase. We at no time intended any reflection of impropriety or wrongdoing by the County or the Commission who were not a party to making the purchase in question. It was purely our opinion based on the facts provided and the law as we found it," Baggett further explained in his letter to Clague. 
"...I want to assure you that our firm has considered Manatee County a valued client from even before our office joined Greenberg Traurig in 1991. We would never consciously do anything to in any way taint that relationship," wrote Baggett. 
In his message to Colonneso, Baggett appeared to share that it was a concern of his firm that the county attorney would be recommending the board terminate the county’s bond contract with Greenberg Traurig at the next scheduled board meeting. 
To read Baggett’s June 2 email to the county attorney in full, click here.
Additional emails showed that after Londot provided Clague with the June 16 "opinion clarification" as requested, Baggett again communicated with Colonneso to confirm that Londot’s clarification did not change the firm’s original Feb. 13 finding that Van Ostenbridge’s purchase of voter data was not of a public purpose. 
In a June 16 email to Colonneso, Baggett included, "It does not change the conclusion that the expenditure was not for a public purpose…" 
In a response to Baggett on June 20, Colonneso wrote in part, "...It is unique that the county attorney became so involved as to request the very attorney that I retained for these services to put a peripheral 'clarification' in writing. It appears to go beyond the scope of the statutory function, as any one individual is not the ‘client’ of the county attorney, rather it is the board as a body." 
"This purchase was not made by the board as a body," Colonneso added in her reply to Baggett, "nor was it related to the board as a body." 
Baggett again responded to Colonneso, writing, "I have made the point to him (Clague) that this was not a Board approved expenditure but rather one made without board knowledge on behalf of a single individual. You and I both know the pressure he is under. We did not change our conclusion as to public purpose."
To view the additional record of emails between Colonneso and Baggett from June 16 and June 20, click here

Contemporaneous Notes 

In its June 29 report, the Herald Tribune quoted Van Ostenbridge as having stated, "Until this audit report came out, every indication has been that it was a perfectly legitimate expense. The clerk's office would reach out to ask questions, we would respond, then there would be months of silence. So I assumed it was a non-issue."
But copies of contemporaneous notes kept by Micheal Gallen, legal counsel to the clerk, noted multiple instances where the clerk’s office informed Van Ostenbridge that its determination was that the P-card transaction did not meet the standard of "public purpose." 
After speaking with Van Ostenbridge on Nov. 14, 2022, Gallen noted of the exchange, "...I stated it was determined the purchase was not for a valid public purpose… and that he has an opportunity to reimburse." 
Gallen’s notes included that Van Ostenbridge told him that he was not going to reimburse the $1600, adding that Van Ostenbridge told Gallen during the phone call that the county attorney and former CFO "said it was fine." 
Another contemporaneous note recorded by Gallen on Nov. 14 related to an exchange he had with the county attorney about the matter. Following his communication with Clague, Gallen noted, "..When I informed Bill about the voter data issue, he said that the purchase may be related to redistricting, that it was around that time, and that the public purpose depends on how it was used."
On Nov. 17, Gallen noted a meeting attended by himself, Colonneso, Van Ostenbridge, and Clague. In Gallen’s note of this meeting he recorded that upon informing Clague the purchase doesn’t appear to be for a public purpose, Clague insisted that it was and that "he has case law to back this up." 
Gallen noted that during the Nov. 17 meeting, Clague kept reverting back to the email newsletter being a public purpose despite the Clerk’s focused concern being on the purchase of voter data. Gallen concluded his meeting notes, writing, "All indications were that the $1600 would not be repaid."
Again on March 9, 2023, Gallen noted a phone call with Van Ostenbridge where he again inquired whether the commissioner intended to repay the $1,600 for the transaction. 
"KVO restated that the voter data purchase was for a public purpose. Further stating he will have 'his attorney' draft something up." 

Despite the assertion made by Clague in his written legal opinion that the Clerk's determination relied upon the opinion provided by the outside counsel of Greenberg Traurig, the contemporaneous notes recorded by Gallen show that Colonneso was already of the opinion that Van Ostenbridge's purchase was not of a public purpose prior to retaining the firm to review the issue. 

In his June 16 written legal opinion, Clague included that Van Ostenbridge had informed him that the detailed list of registered voter data was received from McShane LLC by "happenstance" when the consulting firm inexplicably included the voter data with the list of District 3 registered voters’ email addresses the commissioner had actually ordered. 
But a record of the receipt from McShane LLC made no reference to "email addresses" as Van Ostenbridge claimed to Clague he had intended to purchase. Instead, the receipt dated Oct. 6, 2021, from McShane LLC included the description of the type of data purchased by Van Ostenbridge as "registered voter data." 
Click here to view the Oct. 2021 receipt from McShane LLC. 
In addition to his alleging the consulting firm had provided him voter data that he did not order, Van Ostenbridge told the Herald Tribune—as Gallen alleged Van Ostenbridge had told him on Nov. 14—that he had "cleared the purchase" with the county attorney and the county’s former CFO, Jan Brewer in Oct. 2021.  
In his June 16 legal opinion to Van Ostenbridge, Clague included his recollection that in the Fall of 2021, Van Ostenbridge inquired of him whether the purchase of "an email database of registered voters" would constitute a legally permissible use of public funds. Because Clague understood the email database would be used to provide District 3 voters with a newsletter, he advised at the time that "such a purchase would constitute a legally permissible use of public funds."
TBT reached Brewer by phone about the commissioner’s claim that she had also "cleared" the purchase. Brewer told TBT that while she did recall a brief discussion in the Fall of 2021 about Van Ostenbridge’s desire to begin a District 3 resident newsletter, she only had a recollection of being asked whether expenditures associated with the production and/or delivery of a newsletter would be permissible. 
"I have never, nor would I ever, tell anyone that purchasing voter personal information with hard-earned taxpayer dollars is in agreement with the Procurement Policy," Brewer told TBT. "Every individual with a procurement card undergoes a training with the Procurement policy which defines what is allowed to be purchased and what is not."
A purchasing card agreement was signed by Van Ostenbridge in Nov. 2020. The agreement outlines the responsibilities of cardholders and includes a required "signing off" for having completed the required P-card training. 
To read the contemporaneous notes as recorded by Clerk’s counsel, click here

The Commissioner’s Aide 

Jorge Arana was first hired to be an aide to Manatee County Commissioners in Sept. 2021. According to Arana’s LinkedIn profile, he previously worked as a campaign staffer the year before being hired by the county. 
When he was questioned about the McShane LLC transaction by a supervisor of the Clerk of Court’s Accounts Payable Division in May 2022, Arana stated that he was unable to provide copies of written communications or emails related to the purchase of voter data. 
"Several phone calls were made by me to the company for this request so unfortunately, I do not have an email to support what I requested," Arana wrote in a May 25, 2022, email to accounts payable. 
"The person I spoke with may still be working there," Arana added. "His name is Steven Hilding and I recommend reaching out to him for a confirmation of my request for a district-wide resident list." 
Steven Hilding was not just a representative of McShane LLC that Arana spoke to while arranging the purchase of information on District 3 residents, Hilding was also Arana’s former supervisor when he worked for the Republican Party of Florida. 
Records show that when Arana was hired in Sept. 2021, a human resources employee requested Arana email her a list of former employer contacts to verify Arana’s previous employment. Hilding’s contact information was included in the list Arana provided to human resources. 
"He was the field coordinator for when I was at the Republican Party of Florida," Arana wrote in his email to human resources. "He was my supervisor. He was also the campaign manager from when I worked for the Karen Rose for School Board campaign." 
Records produced per our request of the Inspector General’s office show that it was Hilding himself who emailed the spreadsheet of District 3 voter data ordered by Van Ostenbridge to Arana’s county email address on Oct. 6, 2021. At the time, Hilding was working for McShane LLC as a fundraising associate. 
According to Hilding’s LinkedIn profile, he became McShane LLC’s operations coordinator the same month he made the sale of voter data to Van Ostenbridge. By Nov. 2022, according to his LinkedIn, Hilding was the political consulting firm’s director of operations, and as of this year, he is now the vice president of McShane LLC. 
It is possible that Arana and Hilding may know one another from before Arana’s time working for the Republican Party of Florida. Both Arana and Hilding’s LinkedIn profiles state that each of them attended Pine View School for the Gifted—Hilding from 2014-2017 and Arana from 2006-2017. 
It was just 23 days after Arana began his role as a commissioner’s aide that he completed the purchase of voter data from McShane LLC on behalf of Van Ostenbridge. 

Lingering Concern over Voter Privacy

Despite Van Ostenbridge reimbursing the county for the P-card transaction to McShane LLC on June 27, concern lingers about the amount and type of personal information included in the database spreadsheet of District 3 voters. 
Reached by phone, Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, told TBT that it is his belief that the spreadsheet of voter data is a public record, subject to Florida’s public record law. 
"The spreadsheet was delivered to the government email address of the commissioner’s aide likely making it subject to public record law," Barfield told TBT. 
He added that during the course of its work, the Inspector General’s Office would also have needed to obtain a copy of the data spreadsheet in order to review its content for the purchasing card audit. Barfield believes that the copy obtained by the IG is also subject to release under state law. 
Expanding upon his professional opinion that the purchase did not meet the standard of a public purpose, Londot included in his Feb. 13 analysis to Clerk Colonneso, "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." 
Some of the data points included on the spreadsheet of voter’s information include the voter’s home address and their residence’s longitude and latitude coordinates, political party affiliation (including that of household members), religious affiliation, ethnicity, occupation, net worth, and many other personal details. 
Reviewing the possible labels that might be assigned to any voter on the list for data points such as ethnicity or religious affiliation, TBT found that some of the many options included identifying the voter as Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, Asian, or Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, or Buddhist. 
McShane LLC provided a guide along with the voter data spreadsheet. The guide lists the numerous possible data points included for each voter on the list and the associated codes that may appear on the spreadsheet for each label option. 
To view the guide provided with the database spreadsheet, click here. It is important to note that not all data points will be included, or filled in, for every voter on this list. The amount and sorts of data vary among the more than 19,000 individuals included on the list. 
In the end, Van Ostenbridge received detailed voter data on 19,277 individual voters for his District 3. Once the data list from McShane LLC was provided to an email address validation service, 14,286 of the voters on the McShane list were found to have valid email addresses. 
Copies of the monthly billing statements from SendGrid—a bulk emailing service utilized by the commissioner for sending his newsletter—showed that the number of contacts stored in SendGrid to receive the newsletter each month has hovered around 13,600 since Oct. 2021.  
TBT attempted to reach Van Ostenbridge by email for comment on his recent decision to reimburse the county for the P-card transaction as had been previously recommended by the clerk’s office. We did not receive a response to our request for comment.  

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter for The Bradenton Times. She covers local government and entertainment news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.


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