Commissioner Alpert seeks formal discussion of use of city letterhead by board members without support of their colleagues

Brody, who wrote letter as mayor to ask for leniency for friend in ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ case, rebuffs Alpert’s efforts

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File image

Sarasota City Commissioner Liz Alpert indicated this week that she plans to request a future board discussion regarding individual commissioners’ use of city letterhead in correspondence without their having the approval of the rest of the board members.

Alpert brought up the issue on May 2, as the commissioners were making their reports to each other during their regular meeting.

In the past, Mayor Erik Arroyo noted, a 3-2 vote was needed for a commissioner to send correspondence on behalf of the entire board. Then the commissioners voted to make a 4-1 decision necessary, Arroyo added.

Nonetheless, he pointed out, any commissioner could send a letter on his or her own as personal correspondence on an issue.

The problem, Alpert continued, is that “there’s been more than one letter that’s gone out on city letterhead by individual commissioners that then sort of indicates [full support of the other commissioners] …” She added, “I think commissioners should not use city letterhead for expressing their opinions. There’s a couple of incidents I could point out right now, but I figured I didn’t want to get into that.”

“We could probably solve the problem,” Alpert continued, by requiring a disclaimer in such letters, to make it clear that the writer using city letterhead is expressing a personal opinion, instead of representing the whole commission.

When Arroyo asked the other commissioners for their thoughts, Commissioner Hagen Brody responded, “Not necessary.”

He added, “We are a body, and we are individuals, and we are individuals elected. … There’s a zillion different reasons why we send out letters. … Most of us do it regularly,” he continued.

For example, he said, a commissioner may send a letter to legislators, advocating for action on a specific bill under discussion in Tallahassee. Other letters are in response to requests for support on a matter, Brody noted.

“I just think that that is, you know, I think it’s kind of juvenile, honestly,” he said of Alpert’s suggestion.

“I don’t think it’s juvenile at all,” Alpert replied, again pointing out that a disclaimer would solve the problem of an individual commissioner’s using city letterhead.

Without the support of the board, she reiterated her earlier point, an individual commissioner should not use city letterhead for correspondence. A disclaimer would make it “clear that it’s not the city as a whole [endorsing a certain position],” she maintained.

Commissioner Hagen Brody. File image

“I think that’s pretty evident in the body,” Brody told her.

“It’s not,” Alpert responded. “People get the other impression.” A sentence or a paragraph would rectify the situation, she said.

“I think that sounds like a fine compromise,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch added.

“I just don’t think there’s any compromise … needed,” Brody said. “I just think that that’s not necessary, as long as you’re not implying it’s the City of Sarasota saying [what is in the letter].”

“What’s your objection to having a disclaimer on there if you’re doing it as an individual?” Alpert asked Brody.

“People should be able to differentiate between that, usually in the body,” he replied.

“They don’t,” Alpert said.

If a commissioner writes a character reference, for example, Brody pointed out, “It’s [that person’s] opinion.”

“I don’t think it’s obvious,” Alpert told him. “I don’t see what the harm would be in having [a disclaimer] as a policy.”

“I agree,” Ahearn-Koch added.

Vice Mayor Kyle Battie. file image

When Mayor Arroyo asked Vice Mayor Kyle Battie his thoughts on the issue, Battie responded that he could care less “one way or the other.” He did understood Alpert’s point, Battie added, as members of groups will offer public comments that they make clear are personal opinions and not those of the organizations they represent.

Still, Battie said, “There are bigger things to be concerning ourselves with.”

Alpert then pointed out that no vote could be taken that day anyway, as the issue was not advertised as part of the May 2 agenda. She indicated that that she would request that a discussion be scheduled on an upcoming agenda.

Ahearn-Koch concurred with that idea, noting that scheduling a formal discussion on a future date would allow time for research into how other local government bodies handle the issue.

Brody’s letter to federal judge in ‘Varsity Blues’ case

Although Alpert declined to offer any examples during the May 2 discussion, on April 13, Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Chris Anderson wrote about the fact that Brody signed a letter in support of Brody’s long-time friend Mark Riddell, who was implicated in the college admissions scandal that was dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”

Riddell, a graduate of Sarasota High School and a former IMG Academy instructor who lives in Palmetto, “was paid big money to take college entry exams for high school students,” Anderson explained. “Prosecutors said he was so smart he could ace them on command.”
In that scandal, which involved 50 people — including college athletic coaches and celebrities such as Felicity Huffman — Anderson continued, “Riddell flew to other states and either took the tests himself or corrected the wrong answers while he proctored the exams.”

This is the U.S. District Court building for the District of Massachusetts. Image from the court’s website

In early April, Riddell, 39, ended up pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and one count of money laundering. U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton, of the District of Massachusetts, sentenced Riddell to four months in prison and two years of supervised release. Gorton further ordered Riddell to forfeit $239,449, which is what the government prosecuting team said he collected for his role in the scandal. Riddell also was fined $1,000.

On Nov. 4, 2021 — one day before the commissioners elected Arroyo mayor — Brody used City of Sarasota letterhead in writing to Judge Gorton on Riddell’s behalf, federal court documents show.

“I’ve been friends with Mark Riddell since we were tennis teammates at our local public high school over twenty years ago,” Brody pointed out in the letter. “There he always demonstrated a strength of character, admirable work ethic, and intellectual acumen that clearly set him apart from his contemporaries. However most important to me,” Brody continued, “even back then, was how decent and kind he was towards other human beings. No matter how seemingly different, he always treated others with absolute dignity and complete respect. While undoubtedly blessed with certain God given talents, I have never heard him speak ill of another person or even hint an air of superiority.”

Brody added, “My experience with Mr. Riddell allows me to confidently express that he is still that good person today and continues to practice those same values that stood out to me all those years ago. While I understand he’s made some serious mistakes, I can tell he’s deeply remorseful and I have no doubt he will own up and move forward to lead an honorable and productive life.”

This is the letter that then-Mayor Hagen Brody sent to the federal judge in November 2021. Image courtesy U.S. District Court System

At the beginning of the letter, Brody noted that Riddell had not asked Brody to send the correspondence, writing that Riddell is “The kind of person that would never put an old friend in an imposing spot. However, I insisted.”

Brody concluded the letter by asking for the Court’s “thoughtful consideration.”
He signed it as “Mayor of the City of Sarasota”

Commissioner Alpert told Anderson of the Herald-Tribune that she did not know about the letter.

Brody’s correspondence was included in Riddell’s sentencing documents as Exhibit C.

Another letter in the court documents, Exhibit B, was written by a Florida attorney named Justin Russell, who pointed out that he had known Riddell since they were children.

Russell noted that he is chief legal and compliance officer at VWi Inc., “a nationwide receivables management firm.”

“I am writing this character reference to express my support,” Russell noted in his letter.

These are sections of the letter that attorney Justin Russell sent to Judge Gorton in the ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ case. Image courtesy U.S. District Courts System

Russell included his Florida Bar number under his signature. The letterhead incorporated a logo that appeared to be a combination of the letters J and R, for Russell’s first and last names.

Brody, too, is an attorney. The Florida Bar’s website says he was admitted to the Bar in May 2012.