MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh has been under fire since early this year when she helped organize a controversial vaccine clinic in Lakewood Ranch in addition to having her staff create a VIP list of residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The state-run clinic was held at the Premier Sports Campus in mid-February, a time when the supply of the COVID-19 vaccines were extremely limited.
Manatee County had a random vaccine waiting pool system it was using to keep the distribution process equitable. However, the event in Lakewood Ranch she organized limited vaccines to two of Tampa Bay’s wealthiest zip codes 34202 and 34211.
Following the clinic, there was public outcry over Baugh’s involvement in the exclusive event. Residents protested and called for the commissioner to step down from her position as chair of the Board of County Commissioners.
Paralegal Michael Barfield filed a formal complaint with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in February alleging that Baugh misused her government position in order to “secure a special privilege, benefit of exemption for herself and others.” Following a four-month investigation, MCSO found Baugh didn’t commit any criminal offenses. The case was then forwarded on to the Florida Commission of Ethics this summer.
A total of 18 separate complaints were filed with the state.
That ethics investigation has been sealed to the public up until this week. Following a Friday hearing in Tallahassee, the majority of the state ethics commission agreed that there was probable cause that Commissioner Baugh violated her oath of office when organizing the clinic.
“Probable cause was found to believe Ms. Baugh violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting the abuse of office to obtain a disproportionate benefit by placing her own name at the top of Manatee County’s randomly selected list of recipients to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. In addition, probable cause was found to believe Ms. Baugh misused her position or public resources to assign vaccine distribution priority to serve specific individuals and zip codes, contrary to Manatee County’s COVID-19 vaccination policy,” said the State of Florida Commission on Ethics in a press release Wednesday afternoon.
“This means a lot of trouble for Commissioner Baugh because citizens can now institute a recall petition and have her removed from office based solely on these legal and factual findings. Public officials are accountable to those who they serve, in this case, the residents of Manatee County and when you abuse your office to get a personal benefit, it is wrong and there are consequences,” said Barfield in response to the state’s decision to move forward in the case.
Baugh did not respond to 8 On Your Side’s request for comment Wednesday. Her attorney sent us the following statement via email.
“The Commission’s decision to find probable cause is not an adjudication of guilt, but simply a decision to allow the matter to proceed to the next phase. It was by no means a unanimous decision, which speaks to the real concerns as to whether any law was violated and the complex nature of these types of cases. Some Commissioners noted the clear political nature of the attacks, expressing significant reservations with moving forward. We look forward to this next phase of the proceedings to bring truth and perspective to the allegations and to demonstrate that Commissioner Baugh did not violate any law and did not violate any of her ethical obligations to her constituents,” said Baugh’s attorney George Levesque.
In the next phase of this process, the ethics commission must decide whether a law was violated and if so, whether Baugh should face any penalties.