Log in Subscribe

The Perils of Life in the Outer Limits

In her most recent piece of investigative journalism, TBT’s Dawn Kitterman shines a bright light on the inner workings of Manatee County government, providing rarely seen examples of exactly how much juice is enjoyed by special interests and their political operatives when it comes to crafting public policy in their favor. What’s more, the timing of many of the communications calls into question the official narrative of the story being peddled regarding pending DUI charges against Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse.

If you haven’t read Kitterman’s piece yet, I strongly recommend that you do. It’s a fine example of the kind of deep-dive journalism newspapers rarely have the resources to undertake these days, but with little more than dogged determination and whatever extra hours she could muster between hauling around two daughters in the minivan and caring for a severely diabetic dog (true story), she managed to decipher text logs from a massive public records request made by the Florida Center for Government Accountability that provides a vivid picture of the inner workings of our current administration and its governing board, the Manatee County Commission.

Among the most significant revelations was just how much access politically-powerful developer Carlos Beruff has to Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes. It is also instructive to note how often Anthony Pedicini–a Tampa-based political consultant who has been handling the campaigns of candidates backed by Beruff, as well as the dark money PACs he funds–is communicating with the administrator.

How close are Pedicini and Beruff? Close enough that in their sworn depositions with the state attorney’s office during the Kruse investigation, both men claimed that the reason Kruse and Pedicini used Beruff’s mansion for a meeting the evening of Kruse’s single-car accident was that Pedicini was already going to be there to have dinner with the developer and his family at their home.

Even superficially, the idea that a developer and a political operative he employs have as much sway as they seem to with county officials is beyond troubling. However, as TBT reported in May, multiple senior employees in Hopes’ administration told us that Hopes had discouraged them from wasting their time watching the theater that is Manatee County Commission meetings.

I have to admit, after consuming the text threads myself, I sort of wondered why we even bothered covering the meetings, as the decisions on public policy in this county are clearly not made in chambers or by the people voters elected to serve as their representatives. Few seem to even be made by staff experts, lest they coincide with the objectives of such special interests. When you factor in the deferential tone that Hopes, who otherwise seems to rather enjoy lording over everyone stationed beneath him, regularly employs when communicating with Beruff, it becomes all the more clear that Beruff doesn’t influence how things are done in this county, for all intents and purposes, he runs the county.

The subject of Kitterman’s reporting regards conversations surrounding meetings that involved decisions on the county’s "Peril of Flood" policy, a statuary requirement created by a state law passed in 2015 state. As TBT reported following a November 2021 meeting, developers made a hard push just ahead of the vote on the Peril of Flood policy to insert language that would have allowed developers to use fill dirt and construct seawalls to elevate otherwise undevelopable coastal land out of the floodplain, an idea that runs contrary to the spirit of the state’s law. In fact, it was such a bad idea that two former Manatee County Commissioners with considerable expertise on the matter, and neither of whom could be seen as even remotely anti-development (Priscilla Trace and Betsy Benac), came downtown to urge commissioners not to make such an ill-advised policy decision.

What is important to remember about this meeting is that while commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge, James Satcher, and Vanessa Baugh signaled that they were perfectly fine with the developer-inserted language, it was Commissioner Kruse who balked, spoiling the usual majority of pro-developer commissioners (Beruff and company were the primary benefactors of Kruse, Van Ostenbridge, and Satcher when they were elected in 2020). In fact, Kruse gave a rather passionate and logical argument as to why it was a very bad idea.

The texts in Kitterman’s reporting demonstrate that there was a lot of communication regarding the Peril of Flood issue both when it was initially scheduled to come back before the board in March and again when it actually did in late April. Texts between Hopes and Beruff seem to suggest that Beruff wanted it pulled from the March 3 agenda and got his way. Now, let’s speculate for a moment that this may have been because Kruse, on whom Beruff had spent a fortune between campaign funds and dark money PACs getting into office, hadn’t yet sufficiently moved his position. Commissioners Misty Servia, Reggie Bellamy, and Carol Whitmore didn’t seem any more likely at the time to give him the fourth vote. As such, it would seem the developer needed to know for sure that he could get his boy on board.

In the meantime, the texts between the administrator, deputy superintendents, and staff suggest that the administration was working hard to rephrase the language in a way that would placate both developers and commissioners. The meeting in which that vote would take place was scheduled for April 21, 2022–the morning after Kruse inexplicably drove straight into a giant tree, slamming his large, twin-cab Ford pickup into it so hard that it crumpled the hood halfway to the truck's windshield.

911 calls and police bodycam footage strongly suggest that Kruse was deeply inebriated at the time, which is, of course, an explanation. But I use the word inexplicable because, as one resident who was interviewed after having come upon the crash site moments after noted, there were no signs that Kruse jerked the wheel, swerved, hit the breaks, or did any of the other things one tends to do in that situation. In fact, I remember thinking at the time that it seemed almost as if he’d simply aimed the truck at the tree and pushed the pedal to the metal.

As TBT recently reported, depositions from Beruff and Pedicini acknowledged that Kruse had gone to the developer’s mansion just hours before his crash. Pedicini, who is Kruse’s campaign consultant, claimed the two were hoping to make up after an argument over Kruse’s penchant for the workforce housing issue, which Pedicini thought was a loser on the campaign trail. But that never passed the smell test. Kruse isn’t up for reelection until 2024 and hasn’t spent a ton of energy on the matter, nor is it an issue likely to be seen as a political albatross. It would seem far more likely that Kruse was instead given a talking to on the issue that was on the mind of the man who could be seen as both of their bosses and was to come before the board for a vote the following morning.

Also included in the Kruse DUI depositions, were two interviews that suddenly seem more relevant. The established timeline has Kruse and his wife visiting Sixty East (formerly Gio’s), a martini bar and Italian grille in front of the outlet mall in Ellenton in the time between the meeting at Beruff's and Kruse's crash. One of the deposed was the bartender who waited on the couple. It was a crowded night, and while she recalled little in the way of specifics, she did note that Kruse seemed sullen and figured the couple may have had a tiff. Another was a family friend who said she recognized the couple sitting at the bar and popped over for a quick hello. A strange detail, noted as such by the detective present, was that the woman said George never turned to say hello or otherwise acknowledge her presence as she stood directly behind him.

At some point, Kruse and his wife parted company. It is unclear outside of Pedicini and Beruff’s dubious testimony that the commissioner had enjoyed a glass or two of wine at the developer’s home and the martini bar’s assertion that the couple had purchased a bottle of wine, exactly how much alcohol or other substances Kruse may have consumed before plowing into that big tree. However, it seems reasonable to suspect that he was wrestling with the weight of the devil’s bargain he’d made in taking the dirty needle of developer dark money and all that included.

The next morning, Kruse, like all six of the other commissioners, was satisfied enough with the recently altered and agreed-upon language in the Peril of Flood policy to vote in favor of it, despite a letter signed by just about every environmental group in the region citing strong objectionsthat it was dangerously vague and unnecessary. Some advocates later explained concerns that it could open a legal side door for developers to sue for the right to use seawalls and fill to elevate parcels out of the floodplain, which Beruff will require if he’s ever to complete his supposed swan song–Aqua by the Bay–with the dredged lagoon and accompanying marina he originally intended.

It is by now painfully obvious that Carlos doesn’t like to lose, even when it comes to small issues. In fact, he’s proven himself willing to burn down everything from strategic alliances to productive working relationships just because the person on the other end of the conversation dares to say, no. Ed Hunzeker is a former county administrator because he dared to go ahead with a half-cent health care sales tax that Beruff likely saw as a threat to the passage of a half-cent infrastructure tax he sought and received shortly after. Hunzeker didn’t even get his measure passed and had otherwise proven himself quite useful to Beruff on development matters. He simply said, no, once.

Hunzeker's successor, Cheri Coryea, is a former county administrator because she went forward with an already initiated county land purchase on a site where Beruff was alleged to have development interests. Priscilla Trace is a former county commissioner because she voted in favor of the purchase, and Carol Whitmore and Misty Servia are now former county commissioners as well, for the sins of voting for both the land deal and for Coryea to succeed Hunzeker when Beruff had other plans. The texts in Kitterman’s reporting suggest that Hopes doesn’t need any reminders as to who runs the show. Carlos Beruff has spent a lot of scratch to run Manatee County, and it seems as though he’ll be damned if he doesn’t get what he feels is his money’s worth.

As for Kruse, I don’t think he’s out of the woods. Among the depositions that were notably absent from those released by the state attorney’s office in his case was that of his wife, who was reported to have been in the interview room for nearly three hours while Kruse, the rest of the board, and most top administrators were on a trip to Washington, D.C. Sources with first-hand knowledge of the events told TBT that when Kruse spoke to her after her deposition, he was so despondent that the rest of the board majority skipped out on a dinner with the county’s lobbyist that evening for fear that if left alone, Kruse might "hurt himself."

If you’re wondering why these sorts of sordid tales seem so common among the political ilk, allow me to offer two hypotheses. It is, of course, possible that selling yourself in exchange for the relatively small amount of honor and respect accorded to an elected official in a county known for excessive graft and corruption eats away at both your soul and sanity until it eventually renders your moral compass incapable of discerning north from south. It is equally possible, however, that those pulling the puppet strings deliberately seek out candidates who are both deeply flawed and hopelessly ambitious, certain that, given enough slack, they’ll unwittingly fashion the golden rope into a leash all on their own.

As a result of the kingmakers' success in elevating such stooges, Manatee County government and the board that sets its policies have devolved into something between Kabuki theater and bad burlesque. As for how long it will take before that reality becomes apparent to enough of the voting public to bring about change, especially in a county where so many seem so easily distracted by culture war red meat, one can only guess. However, given the staggering amounts of both audacity and ineptitude we’ve seen on display recently, it is not impossible to imagine that the cure will come in the form of federal agents descending upon the expensively-redecorated county building before it is delivered at the ballot box. There are always limits, my friends, even in Manatee County.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of ourweekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County governmentsince 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Clickherefor his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is availablehere.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.