Lakewood Ranch vaccinations trigger criminal investigation

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.  

Complaint allegations

“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.

Supporting statements

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.

Barfield comments

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.

Paralegal Michael Barfield alleges the recent vaccination selection process may have violated state law. Photo: Joe Hendricks

“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.