As the Florida Board of Medicine considers banning medical treatments for transgender youth, a move urged by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, the board’s chairperson has assured LGBTQ advocates that the group “is vociferously apolitical.”
But at least eight of the board’s 14 members, who are all DeSantis appointees, have donated to the Republican governor’s campaigns or political committee, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. Among the donors are a GOP fundraiser close with the Bush family, a vascular surgeon who wrote a $25,000 check and the board chairperson, who contributed $2,000.
Conservatives across the U.S., including DeSantis, have taken aim at transition-related treatments for transgender minors in recent months. They argue there isn’t enough evidence to prove such care is safe and effective, even though major medical groups have supported it for years. Now, DeSantis wants to block Florida doctors from prescribing the treatments to children.
In early August, the state Department of Health urged the Board of Medicine to create a rule banning the use of puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgeries to treat gender dysphoria among those younger than 18. Gender dysphoria is the distress an individual feels when their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. It can lead to severe mental health problems.
The likely ban will run counter to widely accepted and long-standing guidance published by the American Academy of Pediatrics; the Endocrine Society, a global medical organization; and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, an international group focused on gender dysphoria treatment.
The Board of Medicine, which licenses and disciplines Florida doctors, has been criticized for its handling of the proposal, which is set for a final vote just before Election Day. “You’re lapdogs for the governor,” a man shouted at members in August.
Brandon Wolf, spokesperson for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, said Monday the appointees’ campaign contributions and “open support of the governor’s anti-LGBTQ agenda tells you that this board is not interested in getting to real solutions. They’re not interested in the medicine. ... They’re interested in the politics.”
Board members have donated over $80,000 to DeSantis’ two campaigns for governor and his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.
The governor’s office didn’t respond to emailed questions. DeSantis is widely considered a rising national Republican figure who could run for president in 2024.
David Diamond, chairperson of the board, declined to comment Tuesday.
During an August board meeting, Diamond said he had asked members “to put their personal feelings aside and approach these contentious issues openly, focusing on the science and standard of care.”
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The Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine, which regulates fewer physicians than the Board of Medicine, also plans to vote Friday on a proposed ban of transition-related treatments for transgender children. (This board, with six appointees, licenses osteopathic physicians. The Board of Medicine regulates medical doctors.)
Sandra Schwemmer, chairperson of the osteopathic board, didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
While it’s common for governors to appoint donors to commissions, boards and task forces, DeSantis has done so at a significantly higher rate than his predecessor, Gov. Rick Scott, according to a recent analysis of campaign contributions and political appointments by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC specialized in opposition research. The group reviewed donations to DeSantis’ 2018 and 2022 campaigns, as well as Friends of Ron DeSantis and his congressional campaign funds. (DeSantis is a former U.S. House representative.)
Since assuming state office in 2019, he has accepted about $3.3 million in campaign contributions from about 250 people he selected for leadership roles — a 75% increase in donor-appointees compared to Scott’s first term in office, according to the analysis.
Appointing contributors to boards is legal unless there’s an explicit agreement that someone will donate in exchange for a political appointment, said Kedric Payne, vice president and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group focused on election law.
He cautioned, though, that an elected official’s lawful appointment of a donor could still create the perception that the appointee is partisan or that they are participating in a transaction.
“When there are questions,” Payne said, “about the impartiality of appointed officials, it’s OK for the public to push for answers.”
The Times found that most Board of Medicine members have contributed to DeSantis’ campaigns for governor or his political committee. Almost every appointee is a Republican voter. Some of them have ties to prominent GOP figures.
Here are the members who have financially backed DeSantis’ political ambitions:
- Diamond, the board chairperson and a radiation oncologist in Winter Park, contributed $2,000 to DeSantis’ first campaign for governor in 2018, over a year before Diamond was appointed to the board.
- Scot Ackerman, a Jacksonville radiation oncologist, wrote a $3,000 check to DeSantis’ campaign in 2018, roughly a year before his appointment to the board. The doctor served on the host committee for a $500-per-person DeSantis fundraiser in 2018. This summer, first lady Casey DeSantis visited Ackerman’s medical center to promote a state website that offers information on cancer treatment. During a news conference, Ackerman described her as a “dear friend for many years.”
- Ravi Chandra, a vascular surgeon in Ocala, donated $25,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis in 2018. He also gave $3,000 to the governor’s reelection campaign in October. DeSantis appointed him to the board last year. In a recent application for reappointment, Chandra listed Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley as a reference, according to documents obtained by the Times through a public records request. Baxley, a politician who represents the region south of Ocala, sponsored the Parental Rights in Education Act, which opponents dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill. The law, which DeSantis signed earlier this year, bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
- Eleonor Pimentel, an internal medicine specialist in Coral Gables, contributed $50 to DeSantis’ campaign in 2018. She donated the same amount to his political committee last year. In October, she wrote a $100 check to Friends of Ron DeSantis. The governor named her to the board in early 2020.
- A medical practice owned by Hector Vila Jr., a Tampa anesthesiologist, contributed $20,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis in April. The governor reappointed Vila to the board in 2019.
- Michael Wasylik, an orthopedic surgeon in Tampa, donated $3,000 to DeSantis’ reelection campaign in April, about a year after the governor appointed him to the board.
- Zachariah P. Zachariah, a Fort Lauderdale cardiologist and well-known Republican fundraiser, wrote a $25,000 check to Friends of Ron DeSantis in May. In a recent application for reappointment, Zachariah listed Gov. Jeb Bush as a reference, according to records obtained by the Times. Zachariah was the Florida finance director for President George H. W. Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign, according to the St. Petersburg Times. DeSantis named Zachariah to the board in 2019. He had previously served as a member under different governors.
- Maria D. Garcia, a Coral Gables health care attorney, contributed $250 to DeSantis’ reelection campaign in April, about three months after the governor reappointed her to the board.
In 2015, Diamond also donated $250 to a federal political committee supporting DeSantis, who was in the U.S. House at the time. Ackerman contributed $6,600 to the committee from 2012 to 2014.
Schwemmer, the osteopathic board chairperson and an emergency medicine specialist in South Florida, contributed $3,000 to DeSantis’ campaign for governor in 2018. Scott reappointed her to the board in 2015.
Diamond and Garcia declined to comment. Wasylik told the Times he hasn’t felt pressured by DeSantis or Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo to vote a certain way on the gender dysphoria issue.
The other six donors didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.