Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called for the suspension of Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. Florida’s lone Democrat holding statewide office also called for a full congressional investigation into how a pop-up vaccine site in Lakewood Ranch came to be.
Fried, in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, asked him to take action against Baugh days after the Manatee County Commission declined to strip her of her board chair position. That came after emails revealed Baugh asked to be put on a VIP list to receive a COVID-19 vaccine; she never received that shot.
“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,” Fried wrote to DeSantis.
“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.”
But there is a notable difference. The Baugh scandal has been closely tied to criticism of DeSantis himself. The pop-up vaccine site was set up initially after DeSantis’ administration reached out to Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen about providing vaccines to an under-vaccinated senior population in the region. A site was set up serving two wealthy Lakewood Ranch neighborhoods, prompting accusations of political favoritism, which DeSantis has rejected as untrue.
But Fried simultaneously called for an investigation by Congress into how Florida has distributed its federal allotments of vaccines. She wrote a letter to Rep. James Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and Rep. Steve Scalise, the committee’s ranking member, asking for scrutiny of alleged political corruption. She references the Lakewood Ranch event in particular.
“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,’” Fried’s letter alleges. “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.”
Fried also referenced reporting in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about other sites set up through DeSantis’ political donors.
“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,” Fried wrote.