The State Attorney’s Office reports insufficient evidence to press charges against Manatee County School Board Member Julie Aranibar regarding a potential public records and Sunshine law violation.
Christine Sket, of the local advocacy group Fund Education Now!, filed a complaint with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Nov. 8 claiming Aranibar had sent district-related text messages to former school board candidate Robert Moates during a Sept. 10 board meeting.
The investigation also included school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter and Barbara Harvey, another school board member.
Sket sent a request to the Manatee County School district Sept. 14 to see all text messages sent by board members during the Sept. 10 meeting — the same date former superintendent Tim McGonegal resigned over a $3.4 million budget deficit. School employees’ text messages are public record in Florida if they relate to school business.
School board attorney John Bowen sent an email to district staff asking them to provide text messages sent or received during the Sept. 10 meeting relating to school business. If they could not find the messages, Bowen directed staff to contact their phone carrier.
Aranibar replied to Bowen saying the only messages she found were from her kids asking about dinner, however, later evidence revealed that she had messaged Moates during the meeting.
On Oct. 5, Moates sent Sket a copy of text exchanges between him and Aranibar during the Sept. 10 meeting. He provided the same evidence to the Sheriff’s Office.
Aranibar sent Moates, who was present at the meeting, a text saying “Penny for ur thoughts?”
Moates replied, “Good times. I want to kick something off the consent agenda and use it to talk about budget.”
Aranibar didn’t respond until the next morning.
Moates also told the Sheriff's Office that he texted Carpenter during the meeting, “I would like to speak to the budget during public comment if possible.”
Carpenter never replied.
On Nov. 15, a deputy interviewed Aranibar. She denied remembering exchanging texts with Moates during the meeting.
She later remembered sending a text to Moates, but said she sent it during a break in the meeting.
Aranibar did not retrieve that message for investigators.
She denied deleting it.
She said her email was hit with a virus that prevented her from finding the message. Aranibar showed her phone to the Sheriff’s Office, which still showed messages before and after Sept. 10.
A computer expert told investigators that no such virus exists that would delete a specific message on a specific day.
After reviewing videotape, the Sheriff’s Office confirmed Aranibar sent Moates a text during the meeting, not at break, like she said.
The Sheriff’s Office contacted Carpenter who said she didn’t remember receiving a text from Moates. She was later able to locate and provide the message.
The Sheriff’s Office said Harvey had made comments alluding to that fact she might have sent school-related texts during the same meeting, but no such district-related messages were found.
On Dec. 3, the Sheriff’s Office sent signed subpoenas to phone companies requesting records from the board members.
Phone records confirmed the message to Moates was removed from Aranibar’s phone.
The State Attorney’s Office said there was insufficient evidence to say Aranibar and Carpenter knowingly failed to provide text messages.
Their decision concluded board members did not violate the Sunshine law because they were not communicating with one another regarding official business.