By Caroline Klancke, Florida Ethics Institute.
During its public session meeting on Friday, January 27, 2023, the Florida Commission on Ethics, the constitutionally created independent agency tasked with interpreting and enforcing the State’s ethics laws, approved a settlement agreement involving Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh over her role in organizing an exclusive COVID-19 vaccine event.
The ethics complaint investigation arose after the Commission on Ethics received 17 ethics complaints from concerned citizens against Baugh alleging that she misused her official position by coordinating a pop-up COVID vaccination clinic in early 2021 offering a limited number of vaccinations only to Lakewood Ranch residents in certain ZIP codes in violation of the Manatee County vaccine distribution policy and by putting her name at the top of the Manatee County list of vaccine recipients.
Following the Ethics Commission’s finding of Probable Cause on December 8, 2021, the matter was referred to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings for a full administrative trial to determine if Baugh’s actions violated the constitutional prohibition against abusing one’s official position to gain a disproportionate benefit and the Code of Ethics prohibition against misusing one’s official position. Prior to the commencement of the administrative trial, the parties negotiated the settlement agreement considered by the Commission on January 27, 2023, in lieu of further proceedings.
In the settlement agreement, Baugh acknowledged that she misused her official position and resources by deviating from Manatee County’s vaccine distribution policy to benefit specific individuals and zip codes. In light of this violation of the Code of Ethics, Baugh further agreed to be publicly censured and reprimanded and to pay a fine of $8,000. During the deliberation of the settlement agreement, Commissioner Wengay Newton, Sr., argued for the upward adjustment of the penalty in light of what he asserted was a clear disproportionate benefit to Baugh and stated that “Ray Charles can see what went on here.” Following a spirited discussion, the settlement was approved by the Ethics Commission with Commissioner Newton and one other member voting in opposition.