The Florida Ethics Commission found probable cause Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh abused her position when she put her name atop a vaccination list.
The incident, which prompted national mockery, occurred in February as Gov. Ron DeSantis established pop-up vaccination sites around the state. That generally generated positive press for the administration until the opening of a Lakewood Ranch site that served residents in only two wealthy ZIP codes of Manatee County.
Criticism of Baugh intensified upon the revelation the Commissioner, who helped organize the pop-up site, requested a VIP list for certain residents to receive vaccines, including herself.
The Ethics Commission found problems both with her role in site selection and her attempt to use her office to receive vaccines then in high demand.
“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,” reads a release from the Ethics Commission. “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.”
Baugh could face fines up to $10,000 or even suspension from office. But an attorney for the Commissioner stressed no punishment has yet been determined and he maintained no laws were broken.
“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,” said Baugh attorney George Levesque.
“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 allegation and to demonstrate that Commissioner Baugh did not violate any law and did not violate any of her ethical obligation to her constituents.”
Baugh’s actions at the time prompted an unsuccessful attempt to oust her as County Commission chair. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, also called for Baugh to be suspended as a County Commissioner. Ironically, the Ethics Commission found probable cause against Fried regarding financial disclosures the same day it announced its findings on Baugh.
Baugh publicly apologized after news broke of her actions and did not receive a vaccine at the pop-up clinic. She dismissed calls for further punishment at the time as political.
“I have apologized to my constituents and my colleagues for a lapse in judgment,” she said. “These petty partisan political calls are nothing more than the divisive politics our nation needs to steer away from. I will continue working to bring more vaccine to Manatee County and lead us through this pandemic.”