TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Newly-revealed text messages between state officials and local organizers of a Manatee County coronavirus vaccine clinic are shedding more light on how the exclusive pop-up event was created to give certain residents prioritized access to doses of the shot in February.
The text messages, released after a complaint filed out of Sarasota County and obtained by 8 On Your Side, highlight communication between Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen. The conversation shows they suggested Gov. Ron DeSantis visit their three-day vaccine event in February on the notion it would help him seek re-election in 2022.
“I told [a staffer of DeSantis] that we would keep the list and that you and I were working together to make this happen,” Baugh said on Feb. 9 in the text message exchange.
“Gov said he might show up,’’ Jensen replied. “Should try to see if that would help him get exposure here.”
“Excellent point. After all, 22 is right around the corner,’’ Baugh wrote back.
Gov. DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022.
In the texts, Jensen sounds off in frustration upon telling Baugh that Courtney Coppola, DeSantis’ chief of staff for the Florida Department of Health, told him to “maintain a list.”
“Amazing. They want me to maintain a list. They can’t. Screw this,’’ Jensen writes.
“Let me see what I can do,’’ replies Baugh.
The texts were released after a complaint was filed by Sarasota paralegal and political activist Michael Barfield. Barfield helped spur a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigation on whether or not Baugh violated state law after admitting to creating and adding her name to a “VIP” list for the pop-up vaccine clinic.
“This is deeply troubling and it confirms what we have suspected about events popping up all over the state in exclusive country clubs, and so that is very disappointing,” Barfield said Tuesday in response to the text messages.
“The more disturbing thing to me is the fact that as the governor was holding that press conference at Lakewood Ranch, other citizens in Manatee County who had already been told they had won the lottery to get their vaccine in the next day, were being told that they are vaccine appointments were going to be canceled,” he added.
Commissioner Baugh declined to comment on the texts. During a commission meeting Tuesday afternoon, she said she plans on holding a news conference sometime in the future.
“For those that are upset with me over it, I have also heard from many that thanked me for doing it because it got 3,000 people off that lottery to allow for 3,000 more people to get vaccinated,” Baugh said during the meeting. “The bottom line is, I would not go against the governor in any way, shape or form. He was bringing vaccine to our county. That is very important. I stand by it.”
A spokesperson for Gov. DeSantis responded to the text messages in a statement, saying, “It’s unclear why these individuals would make such absurd remarks. The Governor’s only focus remains getting shots in arms and protecting our most vulnerable.”