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Bradenton Times exclusive: Manatee County contractor’s low-profile job mushrooms

Written by on Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Staff approves Secure HR contract to grow 20-fold.

By Dawn Kitterman

The Bradenton Times

A purchasing agreement executed last fall between the Manatee County Government and a local payroll and PEO company has grown into a six-figure contract after just six months.

The county’s agreement with Secure HR was initially approved for a “not to exceed” amount of $18,750. The most recent amendment to that agreement was approved administratively and will provide Secure HR Pro $415,000 for 12 months of continuing HR consulting services — on top of the $37,500 already paid to the company for Phase 1 and 2.

Manatee County Commissioners approved the initial procurement agreement with Secure HR as a consent agenda item during an August 2023 county commission meeting.

The item’s cover sheet included in part, “Agreement No. 23-R082620JE is in the not-to-exceed amount of $18,750; however, given the possibility for additional Human Resources Assessment and Consulting services at the request of the county, County Administration is requesting funding be directly tied to the Board of County Commissioners-approved departmental budget…”

The language included in the agreement suggested that additional services and costs could be approved under the agreement in the future. However, according to the county’s procurement and standard manual, if the agreement’s total expenditures were below the $500,000 threshold, such amendments to the agreement could be approved administratively and avoid a public hearing or board approval.

As TBT reported last fall, multiple questions were raised by the agreement’s initial approval, including questions about the small payroll company’s qualifications and experience, the fact that the contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process, and that the company’s president, Dennis Cooley, appears to have political and personal relationships with some of the commissioners.

At the time of our last reporting, public record emails revealed that the beginning negotiations between county administration, procurement officials, and Cooley on behalf of Secure HR, began with a much higher quoted cost than the $18,750 approved on consent in August.

At one point in negotiations, Cooley quoted the county $150,000 for two months of services. An email string between then-acting administrator Lee Washington and a procurement official shows that Washington was alarmed by the figure—a concern that appeared to be shared by the procurement official.

Our previous investigation also uncovered a conflict in the name of the business that the county had contracted with for HR consulting services. The executed agreement was between the county and  “Secure HR, LLC,” but the first invoice submitted for payment under the agreement requested that the payment be made to “Secure HR Pro”—despite the agreement being with Secure HR.

Public records reveal that on October 5, 2023, the county administration initiated its first amendment to the approved agreement with Secure HR. Amendment 1 expanded the agreement to incorporate Phase 2 of service for an additional $18,750. Under the terms of the first amendment to the agreement, the county would pay Secure HR a $10,000 advance to launch Phase 2, even though Phase 1 had not yet been completed.

On October 20, 2023, the county administration executed a second amendment to the agreement. This amendment changed the name of the business of record from Secure HR, LLC to Secure HR Pro, LLC.

Sunbiz.org records revealed that “Secure HR Pro” had only been registered as a Florida limited liability company about three weeks prior to the agreement’s execution in August 2023. Secure HR’s business website showed that the business provided payroll and PEO services to “small businesses,” but a company “news update” dated September 2023 announced new expanded services to “large complex organizations“ under Secure HR Pro.

There is no evidence to show that Secure HR Pro has had any prior experience providing HR assessment or consulting services to any large or complex organizations before landing the contract with Manatee County. In addition, there is no evidence on the website or provided in any other document or public record that suggests that Secure HR Pro or Mr.Cooley have ever provided services to any public sector organization.

These two details are significant because the agreement was awarded as a “single source” and without a competitive bidding process. The agreement was also awarded to Secure HR despite the county already having an existing agreement with an established international HR consulting firm, Gallagher Benefit Services.

Unlike Cooley’s Secure HR website, Gallagher’s website provides a long list of client industries within both the public and private sectors. Gallagher’s website also shares details about its consultants’ bios, including areas of expertise and certifications.

The most recent amendment to the agreement was the third amendment. This amendment provided for ongoing HR support and assessment services to the county by Cooley’s Secure HR Pro. The attachment incorporated into the agreement summarized the cost to the county for ongoing support services in one sentence:

“The annual rate is $415,000 shall be paid in monthly installments of $34,583.33 per month,” stated the amendment’s Attachment A.


Procurement agreements generally detail the specific needs of the county, the service and scope of work that will be provided by the vendor, the desired outcomes and performance metrics for monitoring the quality of the services being provided, and deliverables.

Deliverables are the outputs or results that a contractor agrees to provide to a client according to the terms and conditions of a contract. Depending on the service, deliverables can be tangible products such as design drawings, audits, or other reports or written assessments.

In the case of the agreement that Secure HR Pro entered into with Manatee County, a deliverable of Phase 1 included a summary report of its assessment findings.

On page three of Secure HR’s accepted proposal, “Upon completion of the assessment, Secure HR will compile the results into a comprehensive summary report to be presented to the appropriate stakeholders…”

Page six of the document summarizes the proposed reporting for Phase 1, “The analysis findings are compiled into a comprehensive report that highlights the key insights, actionable recommendations, and potential solutions to improve HR processes and practices.”

When Cooley proposed Phase 2 in an email to Deputy County Administrator De Pol on September 27, 2023, he wrote in part, “At the end of Phase 1, we will provide a mid-assessment summary report. At the end of Phase 2, we will have the information we need to provide a complete assessment and the desired ‘State of Human Resources’ report.”

Click here to read multiple emails in this thread.

TBT submitted our first public record request for a copy of Secure HR Pro’s end-of-Phase 1 summary report on October 27, 2023. In response to our request, the county’s records manager responded via email, writing, “The report requested is currently not available as the County has not received it yet. Please check back at a later date.”

A follow-up request with accounts payable revealed that there was a remaining $8,750 not yet invoiced by Secure HR Pro for the completion of Phase 1—though an invoice for $10,000 was billed to the county on October 13 for the start of Phase 2. This invoice was paid on October 26, 2023.

A follow-up request for records in February 2024, produced records of paid invoices for the completion of Phase 1 and Phase 2—$8,750 balances on each Phase’s completion for a total of $17,500. The payment of these balances brought the total paid to Secure HR Pro to $37,500 by December 21, 2023.

Having confirmed that the county had paid Secure HR Pro for the completion of both Phase 1 and Phase 2, TBT submitted another public record request to the county seeking copies of the Phase 1 and Phase 2 reports that should have been produced by Secure HR Pro per the deliverables as outlined in the agreement.

However, in response to our request for the production of these records—which should have been provided to the county at the end of each completed Phase—the county’s records manager informed us, “No records exist” responsive to our request.

Seeking clarity, TBT revised our request and expanded it to include, “Copies of ANY records, slideshow, slides, documents, summary reports, final reports, or otherwise used in ANY presentation, or provided to Manatee County Government by Secure HR Pro. This includes any records, reports, summaries, slideshows, and individual slides associated with Phase 1 or Phase 2 of  Agreement 23-R082620JE…”

In response to our expanded request for records, Manatee County produced a PowerPoint Slideshow titled, Manatee County Government – Update to Human Resources Assessment.

The PowerPoint was dated February 2024 and included the names of Manatee County’s Interim HR Director Kate Barnett and Cynthia Keaton, Secure HR Pro’s Vice President.

The PowerPoint included 10 slides that talked about cost reductions, recommendations, and short-term solutions, but it failed to identify what either the Phase 1 or Phase 2 assessments conducted by Secure HR had uncovered. The record also failed to provide specifics as to what problems or shortcomings had been uncovered, or specifics of anticipated cost savings.

It is unclear why the county would have signed off on the completion of Phase 1 or Phase 2 without the required deliverables as detailed in the agreement’s scope of work. These deliverables should have been provided to the county at the end of each phase prior to the county submitting invoices for payment to the clerk’s account payables office.

A closer inspection of the PowerPoint revealed that the document was first created on October 2, 2023, by Russel Johnson. A search of LinkedIn revealed that Johnson was Secure HR’s Vice President for just three months in 2023, from September to November. According to his LinkedIn profile, this is the only time and position Johnson held at the company.

The history data of the PowerPoint showed that the last edit made to the document was by Cynthia Keaton. Keaton’s LinkedIn profile showed that she was hired as Vice President of Secure HR Pro in January 2024. Keaton’s LinkedIn shows that she is still currently serving in the position.

Keaton’s profile describes her work with Secure HR Pro in part, “Serve as HR consultant and advisor for large complex organizations… Currently on confidential contract.”

In just six months, Secure HR has seen two vice presidents, and aside from the company’s President Dennis Cooley, TBT was unable to find any public records of other company employees.

Secure HR’s company profile on LinkedIn provided few details, but its overview included, “If you’re like most small business owners, payroll and HR issues can really pull your focus from managing your day-to-day operations…”

Amendment 3

On December 20, 2023, county administration approved Amendment 3 to the existing agreement with Secure HR Pro.


Secure HR Pro’s newest proposal opened with this summary, “As a result of the HR Assessment performed by Secure HR Pro, LLC, it was determined that the Manatee County Government has some deficiencies in several areas and is experiencing organizational challenges resulting primarily from decentralized processes and lack of technology. The biggest drivers of change within the organization will result from centralization and automation. Additionally, improvement efforts may include the option of outsourcing where appropriate.”

Much of the proposal reads repetitive and lacks specifics.

On page 3, under the headline, Consulting and Performance Deliverables, the proposal notes, “Secure HR Pro will provide onsite staff on a full-time basis for the period of the contract to manage the process of centralization, automation, and outsourcing.”

However, the proposal fails to provide how many Secure HR Pro staff, the names or certifications of the employees, an hourly rate for services, or how staff Secure HR’s staff will record and report hours worked, and to whom.

But perhaps most notably, the contract conditions approved under the agreement’s third amendment fail to describe any deliverables of the services being purchased—no anticipated written report of compiled assessment findings, no mid-assessment summary reports, no final report detailing identified needs, or Secure HR Pro’s recommendations.

Page 3 from the purchasing agreement between Secure HR Pro and Manatee County, agreement's approved third amendment

The only information or detail provided for the cost of the services was, “The annual rate is $415,000 shall be paid in monthly installments of $34,583.33 per month.” There was no itemized cost of service per hour, per deliverable, per employee, or task.

As of March 2024, Secure HR Pro has received two of the monthly installments for services provided in January and February—totaling $69,166.66.

Assuming that Secure HR Pro is charging for an undisclosed number of its staff working full-time and onsite at the county’s administrative building for 12 months, and there are 260 weekdays (on average, not including holidays) in a year, a monthly installment payment of $34,583.33 would average out to Secure HR Pro receiving $1,596 each work day under the current agreement terms.

TBT attempted to reach Secure HR Pro’s President Dennis Cooley about his company’s work for the county and to request comment about the expanded agreement for consulting services. Utilizing the same email address that Cooley used in his correspondence with county administration and procurement, TBT emailed Cooley directly.

Our emailed request for comment included the following questions:

1.) What other large complex organization clientele does Secure HR provide consulting services to at this time? Was Manatee County’s organization the first “large complex” client of Secure HR or Secure HR Pro?


2.) What other public sector entities/organizations/clients does Secure HR Pro or Secure HR provide any services to, and for how long?

3.) How many Secure HR Pro staff members are working onsite full-time at the Manatee County Government Administrative Building?

Despite multiple attempts to reach him by email, Cooley never responded to our publication’s requests for comment.

Funding Source

A BOCC regular meeting agenda for February 27 included approving a budget amendment resolution under consent. Line item number 10 transferred $415,000 from reserves in the county’s general fund to Human Resources for “the board approved Secure HR Pro, LLC consulting firm contract which is performing the evaluation of the Human Resources Department.”

Despite the budget amendment referring to the Secure HR Pro agreement as “board approved,” only the initial agreement at $18,750, was approved by a board vote on the consent agenda. Each subsequent amendment to the agreement has been approved administratively and without appearing in a public hearing or being voted on by commissioners.

To date, Cooley’s Secure HR Pro has received $106,666 in payment from Manatee County. Secure HR Pro will continue to receive monthly installments toward the remaining balance of $345,833.34 of the total $415,000 approved under the agreement’s Amendment 3.

Cooley’s past political and personal relationships with some current and former commissioners raise further questions about the single-sourced contract.

Cooley, or businesses associated with Cooley, have appeared in the campaign finance reports of multiple county commission candidates. In 2022, Cooley contributed to the campaigns of Mike Rahn, Amanda Ballard, and Jason Bearden. Campaign finance reports from 2020 show that Cooley donated to Kruse and Van Ostenbridge.

Van Ostenbridge’s old Facebook posts show that Cooley participated in sign-waving for Van Ostenbridge’s 2020 campaign, and another post made by Van Ostenbridge refers to a night out in St Pete as “a beautiful night with great friends” and tagged Cooley and his wife.

Cooley also founded the Manatee Herald. While Cooley served as publisher, the site published numerous articles that touted the successes of certain county commissioners from early 2021 through mid-2022.

A single-source justification memo obtained by TBT in our initial reporting on this story failed to provide supporting documentation or evidence to justify the county single-sourcing services of Secure HR Pro.

Deputy County Administrator De Pol completed the memo in July 2023, and De Pol failed to answer the prompts as detailed on the form.

The county’s Manual for Administrative Standards & Procedures for Procurement guides staff responsible for procuring goods and services for the county government.


Under the outlined “Rules for Procurement,” the manual states that the county shall, “Conduct all procurements in an open, fair, and impartial manner and avoiding any impropriety or the appearance of any impropriety.”

The manual defines “nepotism” in procurement as, “The use of authority or influence to show favoritism to relatives or friends without merit.”

To review source documents utilized in this reporting, please select from the following links:

– Agreement No. 23-R082620JE, HR Assessment and Consulting Services between Manatee County and Secure HR. Approved August 22, 2023

– First Amendment to the Agreement, October 5, 2023, Phase 2

– Second Amendment to the Agreement, October 20, 2023, name change

– Third Amendment to the Agreement, December 20, 2023, Ongoing Service

– Record of Payments/Invoices Secure HR Pro

– Secure HR Pro PowerPoint Update to Human Resources Assessment

– Manatee County Government Procurement Administrative Standards and Procedures Manual 2023

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.