TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has cleared Commissioner Vanessa Baugh of any criminal wrongdoing following allegations she broke the law when she had her staff create a VIP list of residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
A watchdog complaint filed in February alleged that Baugh misused her government position in order to “secure a special privilege, benefit of exemption for herself and others.”
“I think that the investigative report is a damning indictment of Commissioner Baugh’s credibility. Clearly, she is ethically challenged and when she skipped the line to get the vaccine for herself and others, she was giving and receiving a benefit,” said Michael Barfield who filed the complaint.
Baugh, a Republican, came under fire earlier that month when she organized a COVID-19 vaccine drive limited to 34202 and 34211, two of Tampa Bay’s wealthiest zip codes.
Emails obtained by 8 On Your Side show that Baugh asked staff to pull a list of potential vaccine recipients from those zip codes to participate in the event held in Lakewood Ranch. She also directed staff to add her name and the names of four friends to a priority VIP list for the vaccine.
According to reports, Baugh did not get a vaccine at the event, but three people on the list said they were called to schedule an appointment.
The commissioner admitted it was her idea to choose the two zip codes. She apologized, but then said she would it again if given the opportunity.
“I will tell you that personally, yes, I would help do it again anywhere in Manatee County if we could get more vaccine,” Baugh said. “To me, that is what is important here — the number of vaccines that are coming into Manatee County. Did I even stop to think that this board and others would be upset over it? No, to be honest, I thought it was a great idea.”
The sheriff’s office acknowledged Baugh “knowingly and intentionally attempted to obtain a benefit for herself and others,” but said her actions did not break the law.
“From the point we received this complaint our goal was to conduct a very thorough investigation,” said Sheriff Rick Wells. “We spent countless hours on this, focusing not only on the statutes mentioned in the complaint, but also examining whether other laws were possibly broken. Nothing criminal was found.”
Details in the four month investigation found multiple county leaders expressed disapproval of Baugh’s efforts to ‘manipulate the pool’. The county administrator at the time told MCSO investigators Baugh responded to her disapproval explaining she wanted to go on with the two zip code clinic because ‘her district would love her’.
Baugh didn’t respond to our request for an interview Tuesday. Instead she sent 8 On Your Side a statement.
“I am grateful for the hard work and diligent investigation executed by our Sheriff’s Office, which has confirmed what I have maintained all along- no criminal act occurred in getting vaccines to our most vulnerable and reluctant area. I look forward to putting this distraction behind me and refocusing this energy on reducing traffic, lowering taxes and revising the alarming growth in the size and scope of our local government.” – Commissioner Vanessa Baugh
The sheriff’s office’s report was forwarded to the Florida Commission of Ethics, and an ethics probe by the FDLE is ongoing, the agency said.
The Florida Commission on Ethics has received approximately 18 ethics complaints filed against Commissioner Baugh regarding her involvement with the Premier Sports Campus vaccination event. Possible penalties could be forthcoming pending results of the ethics investigation.