Newly uncovered text messages to Gov. Rick Scott’s office suggests Sarasota beer distributor John Saputo was using his position on the New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees to try to get Keith Fitzgerald fired from his teaching job in 2012 because he was running for Congress against Saputo’s friend U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key.
In a text message obtained by the Miami Herald and made public this week, Tallahassee lobbyist Nick Iarossi told Scott’s deputy chief of staff in 2012 that Saputo was “trying to get New College to fire Keith Fitzgerald bc he is running against Vern evne though he’s been a professor for like 10 years and we have cut his salary and hours and followed all the procedures of the BOG in handling it.”
Iarossi is the lobbyist for the New College Foundation, Inc.
But Saputo, who is a donor and good friends with Buchanan, said Iarossi got it wrong. He insists he was never trying to get Fitzgerald fired from New College, a liberal arts honors college on the Sarasota-Manatee County border.
“I did not say I wanted to get him fired,” Saputo said in an interview Friday in response to the Miami Herald story. “He’s always been a good professor.”
That same year, Saputo wrote letters to the editor and was featured in a Republican Party of Florida press releases demanding Fitzgerald leave his teaching job on an unpaid sabbatical. He also initiated a proposal on the board of trustees to ban New College employees from running for office. That proposal did not get approved.
“There’s no question he tried to use his position to pressure me out of running,” Fitzgerald said Friday.
Ironically, it was Fitzgerald who played a role in helping Saputo become a member of the board of trustees in 2008. After then-Gov. Charlie Crist recommended Saputo consider joining the board, Fitzgerald said he arranged some meetings for Saputo with New College officials and gave him some insight into the job and the college.
But once Fitzgerald started running against Buchanan everything changed with Saputo, a retired Marine who has run Gold Coast Eagle Distributing Sarasota County since 1996.
Saputo said his motivations were not political and not on the behalf of Buchanan. He said he was just looking out for the taxpayers. He said he didn’t want taxpayers to be paying Fitzgerald the same salary if he wasn’t teaching a full load at New College – a state university.
“As a trustee, I’m representing the taxpayers,” Saputo said.
Fitzgerald lost his campaign against Buchanan in 2012 and still teaches at New College.
The text message about Saputo came to light now as part a lawsuit by Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews which shows the governors staff used text messaging to communicate official business despite previous declarations that such text messages didn’t exist. Read more about the use of text messages in the governor’s office here.