Florida ethics board to decide Manatee official’s settlement over COVID vaccine event this week

Bradenton Herald | By Ryan Callihan | January 26, 2023

Florida’s ethics board is set to determine whether it will accept a settlement with Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh over her role in organizing an exclusive COVID-19 vaccine event.

Baugh, who has served on the Manatee County Commission since 2012, came under fire from residents and her fellow commissioners after they learned she had added her name to a list of people who need to receive an appointment.

The pop-up vaccine site offered 3,200 doses only to Lakewood Ranch residents in certain ZIP codes.

The early 2021 event, which was part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to increase the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, went against a policy that Manatee County Government had created to allow residents equal opportunities to receive a shot.

Weeks earlier, Baugh had voted in support of a lottery pool that would pull names at random from across the entire county.

As she organized the event, without the knowledge of other board members, Baugh enlisted the help of county government staff. In interviews with investigators, a department director said Baugh included her own name as well as the names of friends to ensure they would receive a vaccine appointment.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office conducted its own investigation into the vaccine event. An investigator said the findings “clearly” indicate that Baugh attempted to benefit from the event, but her actions did not rise to the level of a crime. The sheriff’s office shared that report with the ethics board.

Florida’s Commission on Ethics will hear Baugh’s proposed settlement agreement Friday morning. According to public records, Baugh will ask the board to approve a public censure and reprimand, as well as an $8,000 fine.

The ethics board is able to issue fines of up to $10,000 per violation and recommend that an elected official be removed from office.

“The agreement, I think, is very fair,” Baugh said in a previous interview with the Bradenton Herald.

Baugh also said she did what she believed was best at the time, pointing to complaints from residents about the county’s vaccine lottery pool.

“The lottery system was not a very popular item because so many of our citizens were having trouble getting through,” said Baugh, who suggested that the complaints and investigations were political in nature.

“Politics gets involved in everything, and in some ways that’s been very hurtful to the people of Manatee County and that should not ever happen,” she continued. “I hate that that happened for whatever part I played, I truly am sorry.”

But some opponents are criticizing the proposed deal and calling for stronger punishment. In letters to the ethics board, two Manatee County residents cited Baugh’s own public statements about the case as evidence that she is not remorseful.

“This proposed settlement should be denied, and this matter should go to hearing for a judge to determine guilt on both counts, and, hopefully, stricter sanctions,” wrote Jennifer Hamey, a Manatee County resident who submitted one of the 18 ethics complaints against Baugh.

Another Manatee County resident, Virginia McCallum, asked the board to demand Baugh pay her own legal costs, instead of having those costs covered by Manatee County taxpayers.

“Sadly, the next thing I expect to happen is that Baugh will ask Manatee County to pay her legal expenses and the $8,000 civil penalty,” McCallum wrote. “If this occurs, it will add insult to injury for the taxpayers of Manatee County to have to bear the burden of her misdeeds and will have the effect of exonerating Baugh of her actions.”

Baugh’s hearing begins 8:30 a.m. Friday. The meeting is expected to air live on the Florida Channel. Visit www.TheFloridaChannel.org to watch the broadcast.

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