Democrats ask FBI for investigation into vaccine distribution; DeSantis pushes back

Mary Ellen Klas, David Goodhue
·7 min read

Florida’s two top Democratic officials on Thursday called on the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation into Gov. Ron DeSantis for what they say appears to be a “pay to play” scheme in which the governor directed vaccine doses to communities in the state’s wealthiest ZIP codes in exchange for campaign contributions.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer issued separate statements urging the U.S. Attorney and the FBI to look into whether the $3.9 million in contributions made to the governor’s political committee since December alone were connected to favorable treatment for vaccine distribution.

On Thursday, the governor angrily blasted a Miami Herald report that quoted an internal newsletter sent to residents of the wealthy gated enclave of the Ocean Reef Club, located in north Key Largo.

The Jan. 22 publication touted the fact that “over the course of the last two weeks, the Medical Center has vaccinated over 1,200 homeowners who qualify under the State of Florida’s Governor’s current Order for those individuals who are 65 years of age or older.”

About that same time, state data on vaccinations by ZIP codes showed that as low-income neighborhoods tended to get hit harder by COVID-19 spread, wealthier neighborhoods were getting their shots at a faster rate than the rest of the state.

DeSantis denied having any involvement with the vaccine distribution at the Medical Center at Ocean Reef and said the vaccinations were handled by a “South Florida hospital,” which later was identified as Baptist Health System.

“That was not a site that we were involved in in the Keys,’’ DeSantis said at a news conference Thursday in Crystal River.

Monroe County officials later told the Herald/Times that the vaccine distribution to the wealthy community was coordinated by the state and the hospital system and did not involve the county public health department.

“Ocean Reef Medical Center received the vaccines as part of the Governor’s program to vaccinate communities with a population of 65-plus with a homeowner’s association and onsite medical center with the ability to administer the vaccines,” Kristen Livengood, Monroe County spokesperson, said in an email Thursday.

Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat, told reporters in Tallahassee that if the governor had no role and the wealthy community received no special treatment, “then the governor should not fear an investigation at all. Let’s get that out in the open.”

Baptist canceled some of its own appointments

Baptist Health was among the hospitals that received vaccines in January to distribute to people 65 and older and high-risk patients. But by Jan. 19, three days before the emailed newsletter was sent to Ocean Reef residents, Baptist Health announced that it was canceling all first-dose vaccination appointments booked for Jan. 20 and later and no new appointments would be taken.

“Unfortunately, your appointment to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Baptist Health has been canceled due to uncertainty of vaccine supply,’’ the hospital system wrote to thousands of seniors and people with underlying medical conditions in an email.

DeSantis commended the hospital for providing doses to the Ocean Reef Club, an ultra-exclusive neighborhood that, according to Sotheby’s International Realty, has more than 2,100 members who live there either full or part time.

“I support the hospitals doing that and really being proactive and trying to reach as many seniors as possible,” the governor said. He called the Miami Herald story a “really, really poorly executed hit piece.”

Baptist Health spokesperson Dori A. Alvarez said late Thursday in an emailed statement that the health system “has been working with the State of Florida to provide logistical support to distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses across the South Florida community through hospitals, clinics and partners, from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys, including the Medical Center at Ocean Reef.”

For the last several weeks, DeSantis has been on the defensive for steering the state’s vaccine distribution to pop-up sites in wealthy communities with ties to some of his most generous donors.

DeSantis’ campaign reports show that since December the governor has raised a total of $3.9 million and, on Feb. 25, one resident of Ocean Reef, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois and former chairman of the Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR, wrote a $250,000 check.

The Herald story criticized by the governor also reported that in the month of February, when DeSantis publicly steered special pop-up vaccination sites to select communities, his political committee raised $2.7 million, more than any other month since he first ran for governor in 2018.

Last month, a high-end community that Republican fundraiser Pat Neal helped develop was chosen by DeSantis to host a pop-up vaccination clinic near Bradenton. Only people from two ZIP codes were eligible to receive the vaccine at the Lakewood Ranch site, and names were chosen by Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who included herself on her vaccine selection list.

DeSantis chose two other Neal developments for pop-up sites in Charlotte and Sarasota counties. Campaign finance data shows that Neal, a former state senator, donated $125,000 to DeSantis’ political committee in 2018 and 2019 but is not reported to have made a contribution since.

The governor’s spokesperson, Meredith Beatrice, notes that of the 15 pop-up clinics targeted to senior communities, nine were in Broward and Palm Beach counties, “which are not known for being Republican strongholds.”

Calls for investigation

The pattern prompted Fried and Farmer to ask the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.

“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,’’ said Fried at a news conference Thursday.

Fried, a Democrat, is a former public defender who is positioning herself to challenge DeSantis’ expected run for reelection next year. She accused DeSantis of using vaccine distribution “for political and personal gain “ by “auctioning them to the highest bidder” and said she was meeting with FBI officials to ask the public corruption unit to investigate.

“I know fact patterns. I’ve seen up close and personal, crime,’’ she said. “I don’t need a law degree from Harvard to know that when there is smoke, there is fire.”

“I am writing you to express my utmost concern about a number of troubling reports related to COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Florida, raising questions whether any quid pro quo was involved in the allocation of these vaccines, and to request that your office conduct a full and thorough investigation into any potential wrong-doing on the part of Gov. DeSantis,’’ Farmer wrote in a letter to acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson.

DeSantis has kept a tight lid on information relating to the distribution of vaccine supplies in Florida, refusing to release information on how the Florida Department of Health decides which hospitals, counties and private pharmacies receive the doses and how many.

Farmer said DeSantis “would not have to be pushing back ... if he had just established and published a well thought out vaccination distribution plan.”

“It would be a lot harder for us to raise these questions and concerns but, without any published objective criteria, it just seems to wax and wane to wherever his whims may be at that moment,’’ he said.

A lack of transparency

For two months, reporters have asked the DeSantis administration to release the location and criteria used to distribute vaccines. The Florida Department of Health has since released some documents to the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau, but the records do not include complete details. They do show that one-fourth of all vaccines went to Publix supermarkets. While the state did not know in advance where Publix was sending doses, it did learn afterward and adjusted allocations based on that.

“How did they get to the hospitals?” Fried asked. “Who made this specific request?’’ she asked. “And so that’s why we’re asking for the investigation because there’s a lot of unanswered questions, and a huge amount of paper trail that we need to cover.”

The state continues to refuse to release the written criteria it is using to determine which communities receive the special pop-up vaccine clinics.

Baptist Health’s website said Thursday: “We currently have a very limited supply of vaccines from the state, and are focused on vaccinating the following individuals in our community...”

After noting that it is only providing vaccines to Individuals who are age 65 or older or those under 65 with certain qualifying medical conditions, it says, “we are reaching out to individuals whose original appointments to receive the vaccine with Baptist Health were canceled due to supply constraints and will reschedule those appointments based on vaccine availability.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas