TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried sent two letters to officials Monday regarding the “chaotic, politically-driven” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in Florida.
The first letter was sent to United States congressmembers calling on an investigation into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “potentially corrupt” distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The letter references numerous pop-up vaccine events in wealthy communities tied to political allies and donors of DeSantis’ campaigns.
That letter, in part, reads:
Earlier this month, a “pop-up” vaccine distribution occurred in two affluent ZIP codes after “DeSantis … quietly contacted a campaign donor, a real estate developer whose company built Lakewood Ranch, a mostly Republican, mainly White master-planned community in Manatee County.” The distribution included a “VIP list” for vaccine access arranged by a local official and political ally of Governor DeSantis, now under investigation for potential abuse of power.
Since then, additional incidents have been uncovered. A “pop-up” vaccination at an upscale community occurred in Sarasota County, tied to a real estate developer who “gave $25,000 to the Governor’s political committee and served on his transition team” and who said that “he was contacted by DeSantis to help.” An additional Charlotte County “pop-up” vaccine distribution occurred “in a gated country club community where some homes are priced at more than $1 million” tied to the same developer.
Given the numerous serious questions regarding the Governor’s impartiality and potential political corruption in distributing life-saving vaccines, I encourage your committee to initiate a congressional inquiry into Florida’s vaccine distribution procedures, including compelling the production of any testimony, records, and documents as you see fit.
The second letter was sent to DeSantis, calling on him to suspend Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh for her role in the Lakewood Ranch vaccine event.
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh had worked with the governor’s office to set up a pop-up vaccination site for residents in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes, two of Manatee County’s wealthiest areas.
Normally, Manatee County’s wait list program randomly selects residents to sign up for a vaccine, but according to emails obtained via public records request, Baugh’s staff manipulated the database to pull only residents from those two zip codes.
Emails also show Baugh created a “VIP” list for the vaccine, and asked Public Safety Director Jacob Saur to ensure she and four others could get vaccinated at the clinic.
Fried’s letter to DeSantis reads in part:
Baugh admitted that she skipped the line ahead of qualifying Floridians under your executive order, a clear abrogation of her public trust. The allegations against Baugh have been called “legally well-founded” and “serious crimes regarding official misconduct,” that, if convicted, could lead to a prison sentence.
Article IV, Section 7(a) of the Florida Constitution authorizes the Governor to suspend any county officer for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, and other related grounds. You have availed yourself of this prerogative at least five times while Governor, and such action is clearly warranted in this situation.
I hereby request that you immediately suspend Vanessa Baugh from public office. I expect that, despite her being your noted political ally, you will do so with all due haste in the name of Floridians denied vaccines whose lives hang in the balance.