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Background Briefing

Details emerge on criminal charges against former Manatee County administrator

Written by on Sunday, February 11, 2024

They include notary fraud, grand theft, and criminal use of public record.

By Dawn Kitterman

The Bradenton Times

BRADENTON — More information is becoming available concerning criminal felony charges brought against Manatee County’s former administrator Scott Hopes. Hopes was booked at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office almost a year to the day of his unexpected separation from the county last year. On Feb. 8, Hopes, also a former school board member, was processed and released on a $2,500 bond per each of the three third-degree felonies charged—notary fraud, grand theft, and criminal use of public record.

Scott Hopes’ booking picture

A probable cause affidavit submitted into record provides more insight into the basis of the charges brought against the former administrator by the State Attorney’s Office. The affidavit outlines probable cause to support that Hopes fraudulently padded his time cards, receiving thousands of dollars in overtime pay he should not have received, forged documents, and created an internal system for processing notarized documents that violated state law.

Count 1: Notary Fraud
According to the affidavit, Hopes—while serving as the county’s administrator—devised and mandated a process for county forms requiring notaries that “intentionally and systematically” subverted state laws governing the Notary Public.

In April 2023, a complaint was received by the Florida Department of State from a Manatee County employee and certified notary that alleged two documents discovered carrying her signature and notary information were fraudulent and forged. According to the complainant and timesheet records, the complainant was out of the country at the time the notary was executed and delivered to the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller.

After comparing samples of documents legitimately notarized by the complainant to the ones alleged to have been forged, investigators found inconsistencies between the fraudulently signed forms and the legally recorded ones. For example, in her sworn statement, the complainant included that she “did own a stamp of her signature, but she had never used it for notarizing documents.” In contrast, the forged documents were signed with a signature stamp. The complainant also stated that she had “always written her name in block print” and included her full notary number, but the forged documents had cursive/block print and only a portion of the notary number.

Investigators were able to conclude, after comparing the forged documents to legitimately notarized ones, that “the differences in handwriting were readily apparent.”

The two documents in question were related to the release of two separate subordinate mortgages confirming the fulfillment of the loans issued through the Manatee County Government for the State Housing Initiative Partnership Program (SHIP). According to investigators, both documents appear to have been signed by Hopes. In addition, Hopes’ former assistant Lauren Grubb and former commissioner aide Jorge Arana both appeared as signature witnesses on the forged documents. In a statement to investigators, the complainant said Arana and Grubb “were the only two people who she knew of to be aware” of where she kept her signature stamp.

Grubbs separated from the county just days before Hopes’ unexpected departure from his role as administrator last year. Arana only recently resigned from his position as a commissioner aide this January, but rumors alleged the former aide separated from the county to take advantage of employment opportunities outside of Florida.

Before his departure, Arana had served as the aide to Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge. Among his duties, Arana prepared Van Ostenbridge’s “commissioner newsletter,” which later became the subject of an Inspector General audit investigation when Van Ostenbridge refused to reimburse public funds spent to purchase detailed voter data allegedly to create an email list of recipients who would receive the newsletter. The IG’s final report revealed that the voter data was purchased from a Texas-based data firm through a former political associate of Arana’s.

The probable cause affidavit summarized statements provided through investigative interviews with Arana, Grubb, and Hopes about the forged documents. In his sworn statement, Arana alleged he could not recall signing the specific documents in question, however, he also stated that it was a “routine practice” for Grubb to bring him documents for him to sign as a witness, and that, “he would do as he was told.” Arana added that he was “never present” when the documents were notarized except for “possibly on one occasion during Hopes administration.”
Arana also denied having accessed or used the complainant’s signature stamp.
In her sworn statements to investigators, Grubb seemed to confirm Arana’s account that witness signatures were being added to documents while not in the notary’s presence. Grubb also denied having used the complainant’s signature stamp but alleged that Hopes had implemented a procedure in which all documents requiring a notary would be placed on Hopes’ desk for signature, then would be delivered to someone else to witness, and then notarized before submission to the clerk.
Grubbs stated that Hopes mandated this be the process for notarizing documents because “it was more effective and efficient for his schedule.”
Under Florida law, a notary must be present when the documents are signed by both the signee and witnesses before the document may be notarized.
When questioned by investigators, Hopes declined to confirm the signatures on the forged documents were his own, stating that he had signed thousands of documents during his tenure as administrator. Hopes also told investigators he “could not recall” whether he had ever signed any documents requiring a notarization without a notary present. Hopes also denied the allegations made by Grubb that he had mandated any process for documents to be notarized without the requisite witness.
Despite Hopes’ denials of the allegations, investigators determined there was enough evidence supporting probable cause that as county administrator, Hopes participated in the forging of notary signatures on the two fraudulent documents and further implemented a system that subverted state laws governing Notary Public.

Count 2: Grand Theft
On the charge of third-degree grand theft—knowingly obtain, use, or endeavor to obtain or use between $10,000 and $20,000 in county cash—the affidavit details three occasions for which it is believed Hopes received payments from additional hours he reported on his timecard. Two of the reported incidents occurred at a time when the area was under threat of a hurricane.
According to the affidavit, an audit undertaken by the office of the Inspector General of the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court uncovered the payment irregularities.
During a time when the county was under a state of emergency due to Hurricane Ian and during the pay period of Sept. 24, 2022, through Oct. 7, 2022, Hopes’ timecard reflected 156.75 hours—32.5 regular hours and 133.25 emergency hours. Based on the hours submitted on his timecard, Hopes received approximately $15,000 in overtime wages during the pay period. A correction was issued the following pay period on the overpayment, but only about half of the overpayment was recovered, with Hopes reportedly keeping $8,863 of the overpayment.
In addition, note investigators, extra overtime compensation payments are a privilege explicitly extended “to only exempt employees below the rank of director.”
During the pay period of Nov. 5, 2022, through November 18, 2022, another state of emergency was declared for Manatee County due to Hurricane Nicole. Although he was confirmed to have been out of town during this time, Hopes again received overpayment for emergency work hours reported on his timecard.
According to the affidavit, Hopes’ timecard reflected 38.5 vacation hours and 50.5 emergency work hours, totaling 97 work hours. The additional 17 hours over the typical 80-hour bi-weekly full-time calculation resulted in Hopes receiving a $1,747 overpayment. In addition, the IG’s audit report noted that county operations were not even suspended during Hurricane Nicole, and the use of the emergency pay code had not been authorized.
In the instance of the second overpayment, analysis of Hopes’ timesheets revealed that his administrative assistant, Grubb, had entered the hours reported as worked by Hopes. In a sworn statement, Grubb told investigators that Hopes had given her the “necessary permissions to enter his hours into the time and attendance program on the computer, and she would routinely perform those entries based upon Hopes’ instructions.”
In addition to the two weather-related pay periods, the IG’s audit also identified a discrepancy related to Hopes’ very first pay period as acting county administrator.
Concerning his first day on the job, the affidavit detailed the following, “That particular day was nearly in the middle of the pay period…Therefore, Hopes only worked seven days out of the ten days. However, Hopes’ timesheet reflected 106 hours worked when he was only eligible for 56 hours.”
As described in the affidavit, because the period in question was not during a weather emergency,  the county’s payroll system automatically limited the calculated work hours to the maximum of 80 for two weeks. However, the additional 24 hours were paid to Hopes as an overpayment of $2,157 for hours he could not have worked.
Hopes provided a sworn statement on the overpayments to investigators in which he admitted to “receiving straight time payments as emergency operations pay” during the two hurricanes but insisted he was authorized to receive such payments per his employment contract. Hopes also claimed to have notified the Human Resources Department of the overpayments, but investigators noted that the overpayments were never returned to the county.
The affidavit summarized, “Probable cause therefore exists to establish former County Administrator Scott Hopes deprived the citizens of Manatee County of $12,778.52 in unearned taxpayer funds through fraudulent means.”

Count 3: Criminal Use of Public Record
The last third-degree felony that Hopes has been charged with is related to the charge of grand theft. In his alleged fraudulent reporting of hours worked, Hopes is accused of the falsifying and/or manipulation of public records (timekeeping data and logs and the attendance timecard application utilized by the Manatee County Government).
Each of the three charges brought against Hopes is a third-degree felony with a possible punishment of up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Florida does not impose any mandatory minimum sentences for any of the three alleged crimes.

Where It All Began 

Hopes’ tenure as the county’s head of the government organization was laced with scandal that began immediately after Manatee County Commissioners appointed him as the acting administrator in April 2021. Hopes’ appointment followed a scandal that rocked the community and the local government when four commissioners newly elected in 2020 paved the way to oust the county’s previous administrator, Cheri Coryea.
Following the ouster of Coryea, commissioners promised a national search for her replacement. Commissioner Van Ostenbridge strongly advocated for commissioners to appoint Hopes as acting administrator for the term of one year while they sought a permanent replacement. Hopes was approved as acting with a 6-1 vote of the board on April Fools Day, 2021. Former Commissioner Reggie Bellamy was the lone dissenting vote.
Hopes began as acting under a contract that provided him a $187,000 base salary despite Van Ostenbridge having engaged in private conversations with Hopes where he had proposed to Hopes that he might receive $210,000 for the position.
By May of 2021, despite commissioners’ previous verbal commitments to the public, a move was made to confirm Hopes as the permanent administrator, tossing the promise of a national search to the way-side. The motion was raised unexpectedly as it was not advertised on the meeting’s agenda. Commissioner James Satcher motioned that the board authorize former Commissioner Vanessa Baugh to negotiate a resolution appointing Hopes as administrator and schedule a vote for later in the month.
Satcher’s motion narrowly gained support with a 4-3 vote of the board. Former commissioners Misty Servia and Reggie Bellamy were joined by Commissioner George Kruse in voting against the measure.
When Hopes’ confirmation to the position as administrator returned to the board later that month, his appointment was approved by commissioners 5-2, with Commissioners Kruse and Bellamy dissenting.
A year later, in May 2022, as Hopes’ contract came due for renewal, Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller Angel Colonnesso authored a letter of caution to Commissioner Van Ostenbridge, who was serving as board chair at the time. Colonneso’s letter detailed serious concerns with Hopes’ performance as county administrator and sought to bring attention to the identified areas of concern before the commission voted on a possible contract renewal.
“I very recently learned of the upcoming item on the BCC Agenda for 5/24/22 regarding the contract of your county administrator,” wrote Colonneso in a letter that was also copied to state representative Will Robinson. “My letter accompanying this email describes issues that I have been monitoring and I felt that you should have this information before you take up this item on Tuesday.”
Upon receipt of the Clerk’s warnings, Van Ostenbridge turned hostile toward the clerk and issued an open letter in response to the clerk in which he accused Colonnesso of poor performance and politicizing her office.
On May 24, 2022, as commissioners were positioned to take up the administrator’s contract renewal during a scheduled board meeting, multiple citizens addressed the commission during public comment, requesting the board take the clerk’s warnings seriously and open an investigation.
Clerk Colonnesso also addressed commissioners before the vote, further stressing the areas of concern identified by her office. Click the video below to replay the clerk’s public comment concerning Hopes.
Despite pleas from the public and the concerns expressed by the clerk, commissioners moved forward with the extension of Hopes’ contract and confirmed a salary increase, which brought Hopes’ pay to $215,000 annually. The measure passed 4-3, with commissioners Baugh, Van Ostenbridge, Satcher, and Kruse voting for and former commissioners Carol Whitmore, Misty Servia, and Reggie Bellamy voting in opposition.
Before the vote, former commissioner Misty Servia attempted to bring a motion that would have placed Hopes on leave while an independent investigation could be undertaken. Servia’s efforts failed.

On the same day that commissioners extended Hopes’ contract, a deputy county administrator who also served as the county’s CFO resigned. In her resignation letter, Jan Brewer cited Hopes’ increasing restriction of information as the main cause of her resignation. Brewer had served in Manatee County Government prior to Hopes’ arrival, with a service record spanning a decade.

In the months following the events surrounding the clerk’s warning letter to commissioners about their administrator and the board’s ultimate vote to extend Hopes’ contract with a salary increase, public records of text messages obtained by the Florida Center of Government Accountability provided behind-the-scenes insights.
Text messages from Hopes’ cell phone revealed bits of his conversations about the clerk and his contract renewal with various individuals, including Tampa-based political operative Anthony Pedicini.
According to the text messages, the day after Colonnesso issued her letter of concern about the county administrator, Hopes sent a text message to Pedicini, asking, “Are we keeping you busy?” Pedicini responded immediately, texting back, “I mean” followed immediately by another text from Pedicini which read, “We need a new clerk.”
Hopes replied to Pedicini’s text about the clerk, writing, “Without a doubt.”
Other texts from Hopes’s phone showed that on May 24, 2022, he received a message from now-county administrator Charlie Bishop congratulating him on the board having extended his contract. Hopes replied to Bishop, texting, “Thanks, now the fun begins.”
While Hopes remained the county’s administrator until Feb. 2023, even his departure was enveloped in questions. While the official statement of the county was that Hopes was resigning voluntarily, a significant parting package seemed to suggest otherwise. In a negotiated separation agreement, Hopes received 120 days’ pay in one lump sum, payout for accrued sick and vacation days, and health insurance coverage for one year.

The separation agreement stated that Hopes’ resignation would be classified as “voluntary” and “without cause.”

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation into Hopes after receiving a complaint the month following Hopes’ separation from the county. This past November, upon the conclusion of its investigation, MCSO referred the case to the State Attorney’s office.
Click here to read the probable cause affidavit entered in this case in its entirety.

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

 

This article first appeared in The Bradenton Times. To read the original version, click here.