Updated March 22, 2021 at 5:22 p.m. – MANATEE COUNTY – A Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation found no evidence that four Manatee County commissioners committed crimes or violated the Sunshine Law.
“In December, the state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit requested FDLE’s assistance with reviewing a citizen complaint concerning allegations of Sunshine Law violations and possibly other law violations by several Manatee County commissioners. FDLE agents met with the complainant who alleged that Manatee County Commissioners James Satcher, George Kruse, Vanessa Baugh and Kevin Van Ostenbridge conspired to reverse a controversial land purchase and to fire the Manatee County administrator,” according to the case summary that FDLE spokesperson Jeremy Burns provided on Friday, March 19.
“FDLE initiated a preliminary inquiry to determine if any criminal violations occurred. After the review of records provided by the complainant and conducting several interviews, there was no information obtained to substantiate that a criminal violation occurred,” according to the FDLE case summary.
According to Burns, FDLE considers the investigation closed.
The investigation was conducted in response to a complaint filed by paralegal Michael Barfield.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed. It seems the standard in this jurisdiction requires a confession before a Sunshine Law violation is charged,” Barfield said when contacted Friday afternoon. “We will look at the preliminary investigation FDLE conducted. I don’t believe they conducted a full investigation. My understanding is they didn’t even interview Mr. Van Ostenbridge.”
Van Ostenbridge, Satcher and Baugh are still named as defendants in a related civil lawsuit that Barfield filed in early December regarding the commissioners’ compliance with the Public Records Act and the public records he requested of them and Kruse in late November.
Barfield said the FDLE findings have no impact on the civil case.
“In a criminal investigation, you have to prove that there was a criminal intent to violate the law and the burden of proof is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Fortunately, a civil process does not require any intent. The standard of proof is much lower, and the judge makes that determination,” Barfield said.
Van Ostenbridge deposed
As part of the ongoing civil proceedings, Barfield deposed Van Ostenbridge under oath on March 12. Barfield said Van Ostenbridge did not invoke his Fifth Amendment rights or refuse to answer the questions posed to him – as was previously suggested in a motion that attorney Morgan Bentley filed on Van Ostenbridge’s behalf.
“We took Commissioner Van Ostenbridge’s deposition, and I am still waiting for additional records to be produced that I’ve been promised. There wasn’t anything terribly new in the deposition in terms of what we didn’t already know, but Mr. Van Ostenbridge did say he made the decision to terminate Cheri Coryea before he was sworn in on Nov. 17. He said he made that decision sometime between the 11th and the 13th of November,” Barfield said.
At the request of Bentley, the media was excluded from attending Van Ostenbridge’s deposition. Barfield said he will order and later place in the court records a copy of the verbatim transcript being prepared by the court reporter tasked with producing the official record of the deposition.
Barfield said he previously obtained email records that show Baugh, on Oct. 28, sent Van Ostenbridge, Kruse and Satcher a copy of then-County Administrator Cheri Coryea’s employment contract. Barfield said the emails containing Coryea’s contract included no additional comments from Baugh. The commissioners were subject to the Government in the Sunshine Law after being elected Nov. 3.
Barfield said he’s also still waiting on additional records to be produced by Baugh and Satcher.
“After I reach the point in time when I feel confident there’s no other records to recover, we’ll have time to review everything,” he said.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has not yet released any findings in a separate criminal investigation conducted in response to a criminal complaint Barfield filed regarding Baugh’s involvement in the pop-up vaccine distribution site she helped establish in her Lakewood Ranch district in February.
Baugh is also the subject of an unresolved ethics complaint that attorney Jennifer Hamey filed regarding the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site.