Miami Herald

Democrats ask FBI to investigat­e vaccine dispersal; DeSantis pushes back

- BY MARY ELLEN KLAS AND DAVID GOODHUE meklas@miamiheral­d.com dgoodhue@miamiheral­d.com Herald/Times Tallahasse­e Bureau

Florida’s top Democrats want the FBI to launch an investigat­ion into Gov. Ron DeSantis for what they say is a ‘pay to play’ scheme related to vaccine distributi­on.

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 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, 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 vaccine doses 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 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 Chicagobas­ed 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 popup vaccinatio­n clinic near Bradenton. Only people from two ZIP Codes were eligible to receive a vaccine at the Lakewood Ranch site, and names were chosen by Manatee County Commission­er Vanessa Baugh, who included herself on her 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 publiccorr­uption 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.”

Farmer wrote in a letter to acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson: “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.’

DeSantis has kept a tight lid on informatio­n relating to the distributi­on of vaccine supplies, 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 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.”

 ?? Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservati­on Commission ?? Monroe officials said the vaccine distributi­on to the Ocean Reef Club was coordinate­d by the state and Baptist Health.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservati­on Commission Monroe officials said the vaccine distributi­on to the Ocean Reef Club was coordinate­d by the state and Baptist Health.

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