Manatee Sheriff’s Office investigation into Vanessa Baugh’s vaccine VIP list advancing

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh in 2020.

Investigators with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office have interviewed at least two people so far as they look into a complaint that Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh broke the law through her involvement with a controversial vaccine pop-up clinic in Lakewood Ranch.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the interviews say the Sheriff’s Office investigation into Baugh appears be advancing at a steady pace. They believe the complaint is being taken seriously.

The Manatee County Commission controls the Sheriff’s Office budget. There has been speculation about whether the agency will conduct a thorough investigation of Baugh, a powerful political figure in the county.

More:Ethics complaint filed against Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh over vaccine priority list

The fact that the Sheriff’s Office is interviewing those with knowledge of the vaccine clinic indicates that the investigation is proceeding, and sources say there appears to be a sense of urgency.

Randy Warren, the Sheriff’s Office public information officer, said “we don’t have any details about the case” to release right now.

“It’s still being investigated,” Warren said.

Baugh has denied that she did anything wrong, saying during a County Commission meeting this week that “there has not been any criminal activity from me.”

Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh watches the discussion during a recent commission meeting.

Baugh helped coordinate a clinic that gave special vaccine access to residents of two wealthy ZIP codes. Her involvement in the clinic became even more controversial when it was revealed that she sent an email to the county’s public safety director with the names of five people to include on the vaccination list.

Baugh’s vaccine VIP list, which included herself, two former neighbors and developer Rex Jensen and his father, has led to accusations that she corruptly abused her power to benefit herself and friends.

More:OPINION: Baugh needs to resign, or the Manatee County Commission chamber needs to be renamed

“Once everything is settled, I will be having a press conference and I will be talking about this so-called VIP list that everyone has decided upon,” Baugh said during the commission meeting Tuesday. “I still haven’t had the vaccine.”

Text messages between Baugh and Jensen have raised further questions about the clinic. The pair discussed the political benefits for Gov. Ron DeSantis of holding the event, where the governor held a press conference.

Baugh said it’s those who are scrutinizing the Lakewood Ranch vaccine clinic who are being political. 

“I see the emails,” Baugh said during the commission meeting. “I also know that a lot of it is political... the bottom line is the reason it keeps coming back is because we are getting ready to go into 2022, and I have realized that there is nothing I can do to change that.”

The Sheriff’s Office is investigating a complaint filed by Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield.

More:Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried calls on DeSantis to suspend Baugh over vaccine VIP list

Barfield alleges in the complaint that Baugh may have violated Florida laws prohibiting the “misuse of public position.”

“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 wrote.

Baugh’s behavior also may constitute “official misconduct” and "misuse of confidential information” under Florida law, Barfield wrote. 

“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,” Barfield wrote. 

Please follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at zac.anderson@heraldtribune.com.