The text messages exchanged between Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh and Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. President and CEO Rex Jensen regarding the pop-up vaccine distribution site they helped Gov. Ron DeSantis establish at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch in mid-February suggest there may have been political motivations involved in those efforts.
One text exchange between Baugh and Jensen alludes to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ possible 2022 reelection bid and how the Lakewood Ranch vaccine clinic might benefit the governor politically. That specific exchange can be found on page 26 of the PDF document below that contains 35 pages of Baugh’s text message records, which also include exchanges with Commissioner Carol Whitmore, Public Safety Director Jake Saur, Information Outreach Manager Nick Azzara and others.
MANATEE COUNTY – Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh’s role in the controversial Lakewood Ranch pop-up vaccination distribution site has prompted a sworn criminal complaint filed by Sarasota-based paralegal Michael Barfield.
Barfield filed his complaint Monday evening with State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s office and also with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). The complaint alleges Baugh’s vaccination-related efforts may have violated Florida statutes.
The sheriff’s office is now investigating Barfield’s complaint. When contacted via email on Tuesday, MCSO Public Information Officer Randy Warren said, “It’s an active investigation. Michael Barfield filed a complaint yesterday and our detectives are looking into it now.”
In contrast to the randomized, lottery-style vaccine registration and standby pool protocols previously established by the Manatee County Commission, Baugh helped organize a pop-up vaccine distribution site for 3,000 recipients of the 34202 and 34211 zip codes only. In doing so, Baugh did not consult her fellow commissioners. The vaccinations occurred the week of Feb. 16.
On Feb. 16, Manatee County issued a press release regarding the pop-up clinic. In the press release, Baugh was quoted as saying, “This unique opportunity was made possible by Governor DeSantis calling Rex Jensen wanting to do a vaccination site near Lakewood Ranch. The governor has been trying to find large areas of neighborhoods to target.”
According to the press release, Jensen is the president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. According to the Lakewood Ranch website, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is the parent company of Lakewood Ranch.
In addition to restricting vaccine access to zip codes only, Baugh produced a list of five specific vaccine recipients who did not have to rely on their names being randomly pulled from the county’s standby registration pool. That list included Baugh herself, even though she decided later not to receive the vaccine.
On Monday, Feb. 15, Baugh emailed her list of specific recipients to Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Saur. Baugh’s list included Rex Jensen, whom she listed as living in the 34212 zip code, and his father, Lawrence Jensen, whom she listed as living in the 34208 zip code. Baugh’s list also included Lakewood Ranch residents Robert and Marie Keehn, whom she listed as living in the 34202 zip code, and herself, whom she listed as living in the 34202 zip code. Baugh also owns the Vanessa Fine Jewelry store in Lakewood Ranch.
“Based on the following information, I have a reasonable belief that violations of Florida Statutes occurred by Vanessa Baugh beginning on or about Feb. 9,” Barfield stated in his complaint.
The complaint references the following Florida statutes:
“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, which may be in violation of section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, Misuse of Public Position.
“By including herself and individuals on a COVID-19 vaccine distribution list, Baugh acted contrary to the adopted Vaccine Standby Pool and altered or caused the alteration of an official record or official document, except as authorized by law or contract, or caused another person to perform such an act, which may be in violation of section 838.022, Florida Statutes, Official Misconduct.
“By including herself and individuals on a COVID-19 vaccine distribution list, Baugh acted contrary to the adopted Vaccine Standby Pool and used her official position to take action in reliance on information to which she had access in her official capacity and which had not been made public, to acquire a pecuniary interest or gain a benefit by such information, which may be in violation of section 839.26, Florida Statutes, Misuse of Confidential Information,” Barfield stated in his complaint.
Barfield’s complaint includes several additional supporting statements.
“On Jan. 6, the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) of Manatee County held a special meeting regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations. At the conclusion of that special meeting, the Manatee BCC adopted a motion authorizing the county administrator to implement the Vaccine Standby Pool, effective Jan. 7, until further notice. The motion was adopted unanimously. As explained in the public presentation during the special meeting, the effect of the Vaccine Standby Pool was to randomize distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine through a lottery system,” the complaint states.
“On or about Feb. 8, constituents of Baugh were actively soliciting her about their eligibility and inability to get appointments for vaccine distribution in Manatee County. Sometime near Tuesday, Feb. 9, Manatee County resident Rex Jensen received a telephone call from Pat Neal. Governor Ron DeSantis was already on the line when the call was made. The reported purpose of the call was to facilitate a location for a pop-up vaccine distribution site at Premier Sports Campus for additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” the complaint states.
“On Feb. 9, Baugh sent an email to Jacob (Jake) Saur, Director of Public Safety of Manatee County stating, ‘Jake, the state wants Rex to keep a list. Can we do that.’ That same afternoon, Jensen sent an email to Courtney Coppola, a Florida Department of Health employee, stating Baugh helped reserve the pop-up site and outlining the tentative plan: ‘I have no infrastructure or staff to field all the calls necessary to assemble and maintain a list of candidates for the vaccine. I am copying Commissioner Baugh in the hope that she might be able to think creatively to find a solution,’” the complaint states.
“Baugh ignored the Vaccine Standby Pool process and selected two zip codes within her own district, including friends and herself, that would receive the additional doses of Covid-19 vaccine at the pop-up site. On Feb. 12, Alicia Niki Boyette, a contractor on behalf of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, sent an email to Baugh regarding the registration process for the ‘upcoming vaccination event.’ Boyette indicated that the information the department required for the event was a list with names, date of birth and phone numbers. Baur forwarded the email from Boyette to Saur, who replied that he was working on it. The next day, Baugh replied to Saur ‘Pls send to me when you have info as I am working on a list.’ On Monday, Feb. 15, Baugh sent an email to Saur with the subject matter ‘Names for list’ in which she added a number of individuals to the list of those who would receive the extra doses of vaccine at the pop-up site,” Barfield’s complaint states.
“A notice was sent out to Manatee County residents on Feb. 17 advising that the vaccinations scheduled for Bennett Park under the adopted process would be rescheduled due to inclement weather. Meanwhile, the plan to distribute the additional doses at the pop-up site went forward,” the complaint states.
When contacted Tuesday evening, Barfield said, “Vaccine distribution must not be based on politics. Manatee County unanimously adopted the Vaccine Standby Pool and residents have been patiently waiting for their number to be called. It’s offensive and criminal when one commissioner diverts 3,000 vaccine doses to an affluent area and then adds names, including her own, to a VIP list.
“Worse, the regular vaccine distribution that was planned for the same weekend was cancelled on the grounds of inclement weather. Yet the vaccine distribution at the pop-up site for the VIP list went forward without a hitch. If those optics aren’t bad enough, the VIP list and two zip codes selected by Baugh for vaccine distribution at the pop-up site happen to be the most affluent and white in Manatee County. I might add that these two zip codes have the lowest rate of COVID-19 infection within Manatee County.
This conduct is the classic example of corruption and using official power to gain a benefit for friends and the well-connected. It’s time for our system of justice to hold her accountable,” Barfield said.
BRADENTON – On Tuesday, county resident Jennifer Hamey filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh’s recent role in organizing a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination distribution site in Lakewood Ranch.
Hamey, a local attorney, filed the ethics complaint one day after Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield filed a sworn criminal complaint with State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s office and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office regarding Baugh’s recent vaccine-related actions.
When contacted via email Tuesday afternoon Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Randy Warren confirmed Barfield’s complaint and said, “It’s an active investigation. Michael Barfield filed a complaint yesterday and our detectives are looking into it now.”
Hamey’s ethics complaint and Barfield’s complaints are separate and independent actions that pertain to the same issues.
Taking place the week of Feb. 16 at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, vaccine eligibility for the pop-up clinic Baugh helped organize was limited to 3,000 recipients in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes only. As part of her efforts, Baugh also submitted to Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur a list containing the names of five specific individuals, including herself, to be vaccinated.
Baugh helped organize the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site in conjunction with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen.
Regarding the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site, Manatee County issued a press release on Feb. 15 in which Baugh was quoted Baugh as saying, “This unique opportunity was made possible by Governor DeSantis calling (Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. president) Rex Jensen wanting to do a vaccination site near Lakewood Ranch. The governor has been trying to find large areas of neighborhoods to target.’”
According to Baugh’s short list, which contained each person’s zip code, address, phone number and birth date, two of the five people on that list – Rex Jensen and his father Lawrence Jensen – do not live in the 34202 or 34211 zip codes. Baugh’s short list also included Lakewood Ranch residents Robert and Marie Keehn, who like Baugh, do live in the 34202 zip code.
The Lakewood Ranch pop-up vaccine distribution site’s zip code restrictions were not in accordance with the randomized, lottery-based vaccine registration and standby pool protocols previously established by the Manatee County Commission.
As a result of the public fallout that ensued, Baugh later apologized to some degree for her actions and she said she chose not to receive the vaccine herself.
Issues for consideration
Hamey’s ethics complaint lists two issues for consideration by the Commission on Ethics.
“Did respondent (Baugh) violate Florida Statute 112.313(6), Misuse of Public Position, by ignoring the county’s lottery system for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and instead unilaterally picking two zip codes in her district to receive 3,000 additional vaccines issued by the state, to the detriment of all other Manatee County residents 65 and over who had signed up for the lottery system?”
“Did respondent violate Florida Statute 112.313(6), Misuse of Public Position, by putting herself and four friends onto a ‘VIP’ list provided to the county to insure she received a vaccine from the extra doses provided by the state?”
Hamey’s complaint notes that in February Baugh was approached by DeSantis with an offer to provide 3,000 additional vaccines for a pop-up vaccination site at the Premier Sports Campus.
To date, the county administered vaccinations have generally occurred at Tom Bennett Park in east Manatee County and also at the county’s public safety center.
Hamey’s complaint notes the Premier Sports Campus is owned and operated as a Manatee County park.
“Respondent (Baugh), by her own admission as stated by her at a county work session on Feb. 18, took full responsibility for choosing the two zip code locations and advised she was not directed by the governor to do so. Both of these zip codes are located in her district, are predominantly white and have an average median income of over $100,000,” the complaint states. It also notes Baugh lives in the 34202 zip code and owns a business there as well.
The ethics complaint states, “Respondent (Baugh) further admits in her responses to correspondence from an angry resident that she ‘did have a lack of judgement.’”
Hamey’s complaint cites language contained in Florida Statute 112.313(6) that states, “No public officer shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself or others.”
The complaint also states, “The first instance of violating 112.313(6) occurred when respondent (Baugh) took it upon herself to determine what two zip codes were worthy to receive an additional 3,000 vaccines and chose two areas that were advantageous to her personally and to the detriment of the other 150,000 persons over the age of 65 who had done as directed and entered into a lottery system.
“Respondent used her position to advise the governor of her choices. She did so with no discussion with the other six commissioners, and she did so without any consideration to the very lottery system she (and the other commissioners) put into place for the residents of Manatee County to maintain fairness in the process,” according to the complaint.
“The second instance of violating 112.313(6) occurred just days after already excluding over 140,000 residents from a chance at the 3,000 vaccines – only 7,285 of the approximately 150,000 signed up residents lived in 3402 or 34211. Respondent created a ‘VIP’ list to ensure that she and several friends and neighbors got vaccines out of those 3,000 that were provided by the state. Two of the parties that she listed on her ‘VIP’ list didn’t even live within the two zip codes that she chose as the ones to get the vaccine,” Hamey stated in her complaint.
“These actions taken by the respondent, separately and over the course of approximately a week, are a clear violation of the requirements outlined in 112.313(6),” the complaint states.
The ethics complaint is accompanied by several evidentiary exhibits, including the Monday, Feb. 15 email Baugh sent Saur that contained her list of five specified vaccine recipients.
The exhibits also include the Tuesday, Feb. 9, email Baugh sent Saur that said, “Jake, the state wants Rex to keep a list. Can we do that.”
In response, Saur wrote, “The state hasn’t mentioned anything to us on this end yet on what they require. We would be able to pull from our vaccine waiting pool for scheduling for them.”
Baugh remains commission chair
On Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission voted 4-3 in opposition to Commissioner Reggie Bellamy’s motion to remove Baugh as the commission chairperson. Bellamy’s motion did not seek to remove Baugh as county commissioner, nor does the commission have that authority.
Before making his motion, Bellamy asked Baugh if she would resign as commission chair. Baugh said she would not.
Baugh was joined by commissioners George Kruse, James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge in opposing her removal as chair. Commissioners Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore joined Bellamy in support of his failed motion.