Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh wanted closure.
However, even though a settlement had been signed Oct. 31 by both Baugh and Advocate Elizabeth Miller, an assistant attorney general who represented the complainants before a scheduled hearing by the Florida Commission on Ethics, it didn't give her a chance to publicly address the community.
The third-term commissioner was accused of misusing her position to allow Lakewood Ranch to host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis in February 2021. Eighteen ethics complaints were filed against Baugh, who bypassed her fellow commissioners to set up the clinic and to limit it to two Lakewood Ranch and vicinity Zip Codes.
An administrative hearing was ordered by the Florida Commission on Ethics in September 2021 after a four-month investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office into a criminal complaint against Baugh found she had broken no laws.
Baugh, who was the Commission Board chair at the time, also had made a list of five individuals (herself, Lakewood Ranch's Robert Keehn and Marie Keehn, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO and President Rex Jensen and Jensen's father, Lawrence Jensen) to receive vaccinations at the clinic. Baugh never actually received a vaccination at the clinic.
The settlement stipulates, "Respondent admits Allegation II "Respondent violated Section 112.313(6), Florida Statutes, by using or attempting to use her public position and/or resources to deviate from Manatee County's COVID-19 vaccine distribution policy to serve specific individuals and Zip Codes at a state-operated pop-up vaccination site."
Baugh was fined $8,000.
Although the settlement still needs to be signed by the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Governor, Baugh wanted to tell her side of the story before she puts it to rest.
How did this all start?
What happened was that Rex (Jensen) called me (Friday, Feb. 12, 2021) and said he needed my help. The Governor (Ron DeSantis) had called him and wanted to have a vaccination clinic in Lakewood Ranch. He said, 'I can't do it by myself.' I said, 'What do you need?' I told him I would call Elliott Falcione (executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau who oversees Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch). I asked Rex if he had dates yet and he said 'no.' Premier had ample land. When I called Elliott, he asked me to find out the dates. I kept Rex in the loop and I knew we were going to have to act quickly.
Everything was happening so quickly and Gov. DeSantis wanted to deliver the 3,000 vaccinations the next week, did you think you could get it done?
I told Rex, 'You tell the Governor I will get it done this weekend.' We (Vanessa and her husband Don Baugh) were going to New Port Richey in the RV. I sent an email to (Manatee County Public Safety Director) Jacob Saur to give him a heads up. Then I received a call from the Florida Division of Emergency Management. We're in an RV going down the road and the state wants a tour of Premier. I called Elliott and he took care of it. Emergency Management thought the site was perfect and that we needed to do the clinic the next week (Feb. 17-19, although those dates had not yet been confirmed at that time). It didn't help that Sunday was Valentine's Day and Monday was Presidents' Day, so the county was closed. The state's Emergency Management said it would bring it all. I had already called the Sheriff (Rick Wells) to make sure we had deputies, and no traffic jams. The Governor was bringing in the highway patrol.
Why Lakewood Ranch?
The Governor felt that there was a high percentage of seniors who had not been able to get the vaccine. He wanted to get that percentage down so he could lower the age from 65 to 60. The two Zip Codes were chosen because they were the Zip Codes for Lakewood Ranch, River Club, part of Myakka, and as far north to 64, so I jumped on it. I was doing everything I could think of to prepare for "next week." They said "next week" and that was all I really knew. I talked to Jacob Saur and he said we didn't have enough time to put it together. I asked if it was possible to use the system (the county) had in place. I decided to use the two Zip Codes. I didn't know how else to get 3,000 people lined up in a number of days. I ask him if we could pull names from what we have. He said, 'I will let you know.' If not, I knew we would have cars lined up down State Road 70. Jake called me. He said, 'I have a list with 7,800 names in 34202 and 34211. We only had 3,000 vaccines.' This was bigger than I thought. I was wondering if there was some way we could get more vaccines. People already were upset with the lottery system.
Why did you make up the VIP list?
There was no VIP list. There were (names (Robert Keehn and Marie Keehn) that I could not find on the (Zip Codes) list sent to me, who I knew were registered for the lottery. The people on the list had called me because they were upset with the lottery system. Everyone on the list lived in the two Zip Codes except for Rex and his father (Lawrence Jensen). I thought since had it not been for Rex, it wouldn't be happening anyway. I thought it was the right thing to do. There was no mention of the VIP list in the settlement.
You moved ahead and organized the entire clinic, and pulled it off, without notifying your fellow commissioners. Didn't that open you to extreme criticism?
I may have handled things differently. I could have sent emails (to the commissioners) and I didn't. I didn't find out until Friday that it was going to happen on a Wednesday. Things already were very difficult between the commissioners. I didn't want to mess anything up (with getting the clinic organized). I should have sent the emails. When you are put in that situation, you are dealing with a pandemic that is killing people. You do what you have to do. When 3,000 people are getting a vaccine, you have to make decisions. I should have kept the board more abreast of the situation. But I don't know if they understood how severe things were here. It was something where I was learning while I was going through it. Looking back is easy. I probably would have done things differently. I would have gone to legislators for help to get this thing done."
The blowback from some county politicians and residents was immediate. How did that affect you?
I was on every national channel. I was being called a criminal on the docket by another commissioner.
It appeared at one time that you might consider resigning. How bad did things get?
There was a time or two where I thought I should go ahead and resign. In my heart, I feel I tried to do the right things in the right way. I had a lot of people in the public who thanked me. They said I stood up for them. But it was bad. Every (commission) meeting we had people coming before the board during public comment, asking me to resign. Some commissioners were criticizing me, asking me to resign. saying, 'You've disgraced Manatee County.' The hardest part was seeing what it was doing to my children, my grandchildren, my husband. 'Grandma is being condemned.' They didn't understand it. My family paid a heavy price for what I did. Manatee County citizens have been going through a lot. I wanted it to stop for their sake. I didn't recall ever wishing I was not a county commissioner. You know, you have to learn how to serve others. I didn't become a commissioner to make money. I wanted to make things better in Manatee County. I just wished I had done things differently. But I did things that I thought would keep this on track."
How hard was hearing that the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause 'to believe 'Ms. Baugh violated the constitutional amendment prohibiting the abuse of office to obtain a disproportionate benefit by placing her own name at the top of a randomly selected list of recipients to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. In addition, probable cause was found to believe Ms. Baugh misused her position or public resources to assign vaccine distribution priority to serve specific individuals and zip codes, contrary to Manatee County's COVID-19 vaccination policy.'
It was obvious that is was an orchestrated bottom line.
Finding probable cause was hurtful, but my attorney knew that we had the opportunity to get to the core of the situation which we did. Basically the ethics commission found that I did not follow the lottery system designated by the county, which is very true. The BOCC had even discussed the fact that it was not working very well and that people from other states were coming here to get the vaccine. Also it was discovered that there was not an ordinance done to make that law, the only ordinance was the Governor’s ordinance which was followed. But it would have cost $100,000 (in legal fees) for a trial.
So, if you have put it behind you, are you excited about 2023 with three new commissioners and all Republics on the Commission?
There was a political divide in Manatee County, but now we have a new board. It's time for us to put all this behind us. I am totally excited to see seven strong, conservative Republicans on the commission. I am excited to see what their thoughts are, to see what they want to see done. I am excited to get started.
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.