A Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigation found that Commissioner Vanessa Baugh did not break the law when she directed staff to add her and four friends to a priority VIP list for a COVID-19 vaccine.
In February, Baugh’s involvement in an exclusive pop-up vaccination clinic hosted by Gov. Ron DeSantis at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch was met with fierce backlash after residents and the Board of County Commissioners learned that the site would cater to certain residents in two of the county’s wealthiest zip codes. The decision allowed Lakewood Ranch residents to cut in front of thousands of other seniors who had signed up for the county’s lottery system.
An email sent to a senior Manatee County official also showed Baugh putting herself and four others at the top of the list — ensuring they would receive doses of the vaccine. In interviews with the Bradenton Herald, at least three of those people confirmed that they received a vaccine at the site.
According to a Monday morning press release, the sheriff’s office spent nearly four months investigating the case, including the review of hundreds of documents and interviews with several people familiar with the situation. A 113-page report concluded there was no probable cause to charge Baugh with a crime.
The sheriff’s office’s report notes that their investigation “clearly indicates” that Baugh “knowingly and intentionally attempted to obtain a benefit for herself and others,” but the actions did not rise to the level of crime. An investigator noted that any civil punishment will be handled by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which will be provided with a copy of the findings.
Baugh did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon. Her attorney, George Levesque, issued a statement on her behalf, calling the investigation a “political attempt” against his client.
“We are grateful to the Manatee County Sheriff’s office and the diligent, professional manner in which they conducted the investigation,” Levesque wrote in a Monday evening email to the Herald. “After several months, their investigation confirms what we have maintained from the beginning: Commissioner Baugh violated no law and did nothing wrong. Commissioner Baugh is moving past these political attempts to impugn and distract her and focusing on the work the people elected her to do.”
At the time, other commissioners criticized Baugh’s decision to provide 3,000 COVID-19 vaccines exclusively to Lakewood Ranch residents and urged her to consider allowing all residents in the county’s Vaccine Standby Pool to take advantage of the site.
“You have to understand that the optics are horrible. We have people struggling with the virus. If we were going to pick and choose, I would hope it would go to the under-served populations and neighborhoods,” Commissioner Misty Servia said during a public meeting on Feb. 16. “You’re taking the whitest demographic, the richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them before everyone else.”
“You are a friend and I love you, but I think you’ve made a terrible mistake here,” Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge added during a Feb. 18 meeting, noting that he believed the decision appeared to show favoritism.
Baugh said she specifically chose two zip codes — 34202 and 34211 — to be eligible for the three-day event, Feb. 17-19, at Premier Sports Campus. Those zip codes encompass parts of District 5, which she represents on the board. The district includes Lakewood Ranch, Myakka City and parts of East Bradenton.
While Baugh originally claimed the zip code limitation was a decision made by the governor’s office, several other people – including state officials – denied those claims in interviews with an investigator. DeSantis’ chief of staff said the intent of the pop-up site was to benefit all of the county’s residents.
County staff also recalled Baugh noting that she made the decision “because she said the people in her district would love her.”
Staff went as far as to ask Baugh which state officials had given her guidance to limit the zip codes, according to the sheriff’s office. Investigators said Baugh declined to answer that question and responded, “I’m the Chair. Is the Chair not good enough?”
In discussions with Baugh at the time, county staff also tried to persuade her to keep the event open to the county’s entire senior population, not just Lakewood Ranch residents. Even after staff questioned the legality and fairness of that decision, Baugh overruled their protests, they told an investigator.
Baugh also curated an exclusive list of people she wanted to be guaranteed an appointment, a public records request later revealed. That list included her former neighbors, Rex Jensen and his father. Jensen, developer of the master-planned Lakewood Ranch community, and his father did not live in either of the two eligible zip codes.
As she apologized to her fellow board members and the public at a meeting on Feb. 18, Baugh said she “did not see” those names included in a list of more than 7,000 eligible residents who live in those zip codes.
But over the course of the investigation, the sheriff’s office obtained a copy of the same list and found that Baugh and her two neighbors were already among the list of names. Jensen and his father were not on the list, but they were added following Baugh’s directive to staff.
The email she sent to staff included a list that was titled “Names for vaccination requested.” The email had a “Names for list” subject line. In interviews with the staff involved in putting together the vaccine event, they said Baugh made it clear that the intent of her email was to make sure those people received shots.
In one interview, a staff member recalled his supervisor asking to make sure those names were scheduled close together on the same day. Another staffer told the investigator about the phone call he made to schedule Baugh’s appointment for a vaccine. As a supervisor, he was the one to make the call because scheduling the appointment required special access to manipulate the list of eligible recipients.
While Baugh successfully scheduled an appointment at the Lakewood Ranch pop-up, she was able to prove that she did not receive a vaccination at that clinic. According to the sheriff’s office, Baugh’s actions did not violate Florida law.
“From the point we received this complaint, our goal was to conduct a very thorough investigation,” Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells said in a statement Monday morning. “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.”
Baugh’s motives did have a political nature, according to records revealed by a separate public records request. Text messages exchanged between Baugh and Jensen show the two discussing how the event would be beneficial for DeSantis’ re-election campaign.
“Gov said he might show up,’' Jensen wrote in a Feb. 9 text message to Baugh. “Should try to see if that would help him get exposure here.”
“Excellent point. After all, 22 is right around the corner,’' Baugh responded, referring to the 2022 race for governor.
As they worked together to host the vaccination clinic, Baugh asked Jensen if he would like to receive a shot at this pop-up site, he told an investigator. Jensen said she also asked if there was anyone else he would like to receive a shot at the site. The sheriff’s office said he took her up on the opportunity and added his father’s name to the list as well.
The sheriff’s office’s criminal investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield, who accused Baugh of violating several state laws: 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 in a Feb. 23 interview with the Herald.
A separate judgment on Baugh’s VIP list is expected in the coming months. According to the sheriff’s office report, Baugh faces at least 18 ethics complaints related to the list. One of those complaints was submitted by Palmetto lawyer Jennifer Hamey, who wrote to the Florida Commission on Ethics in February.
“She just starts changing the rules and adds herself to the top of the list? That’s a complete violation of what she was sworn in to do,” Hamey said at the time.
The nine-member commission will announce its decision at a meeting later this year. If the board finds Baugh’s actions unethical, it may recommend civil penalties, such as fines of up to $10,000 or removal from office.
- Jessica DeLeon and Ryan Callahan