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Manatee sheriff investigating commissioner behind VIP vaccine event

According to a complaint, Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh may have violated prohibitions on misuse of public position, official misconduct and misuse of confidential information.
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh [ Bradenton Herald ]
Published Feb. 25
Updated Feb. 25

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is investigating whether Commissioner Vanessa Baugh broke state laws when she helped organize an exclusive COVID-19 vaccine event in Lakewood Ranch and created a list of people to be vaccinated that included herself and Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen.

On Monday, Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office detailing Baugh’s actions related to last week’s vaccine event held at Premier Sports Complex. According to Barfield’s 26-page complaint, which includes supporting documentation, Baugh may have violated at least one of three state statutes: misuse of public position, official misconduct and misuse of confidential information.

“When Baugh inserted individuals and herself on a COVID-19 vaccine distribution list she acted contrary to the adopted Vaccine Standby Pool and used her official position to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for herself and others,” Barfield said, describing how Baugh may have misused her public position.

Related: Well-off Manatee residents get special vaccine access, courtesy of DeSantis

Now the sheriff’s office is investigating the allegations.

“We are going to look into it and see if there is anything there that is criminal,” sheriff’s office spokesman Randy Warren said on Tuesday afternoon.

During Tuesday’s county commission, before a vote to remove Baugh as chair of the board failed, Commissioner Carol Whitmore read from Florida Statutes the section about misuse of public position.

“Somebody needs to take the helm here because we have lost our credibility and it looks like to me we violated our Florida statute,” Whitmore said.

Baugh, along with fellow commissioners James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge are also facing a Sunshine Law lawsuit from Barfield over their refusal to hand over all of the requested documents in public records requests related to their move to fire County Administrator Cheri Coryea.

On Thursday, Baugh apologized for creating the list but maintained that it was not a list of people to be vaccinated. Baugh claimed she wanted to make sure her former neighbors were in the county’s standby vaccine pool, because she did not seem them listed.

But detailed in Barfield’s complaint is an example of how Baugh responded to another constituent earlier in the month who asked the commissioner to “intercede” on her behalf. The 82-year-old woman, with a heart condition and medical implant, claimed that she was told she had been deleted from the pool, but had been re-added.

Baugh forwarded the email to Director of Public Safety Jacob Saur and asked him to look into the matter. She later followed up with the resident, writing, “I have reviewed your email and can tell you are indeed in the Vaccine Waiting Pool for Manatee County. You have 4 entries into the waiting pool. As quality assurance in the waiting pool continues, duplicate entries are deleted. I do show your original entry along with your husband was never deleted and still valid.”

Baugh went on to tell the woman she had not yet been selected for an appointment but that 311 operators were placing calls to schedule 5,100 more appointments at the time.

The Bradenton Herald wrote this story. Herald staff writer Ryan Callihan contributed.