By Paul P. Murphy, CNN
A Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigation has found that its county commissioner’s actions did not rise to the “level of a crime” when she created a VIP list for Covid-19 vaccines, and limited a drive to two affluent ZIP codes in her district earlier in 2021.
The sheriff’s office opened the investigation in February after a citizen watchdog filed a complaint accusing Vanessa Baugh, the chair of the Board of County Commissioners, of misusing her public position, official misconduct and misuse of confidential information, according to a news release by the office.
Baugh has said she chose the ZIP codes herself and also selected some people for the vaccination list, so she and others could get the vaccine. Baugh ultimately, according to the report, chose not to get the vaccine at the drive because of mounting criticism and was vaccinated at the county’s public safety complex.
“After nearly four months, numerous interviews and a review of hundreds of documents, investigators concluded that none of Baugh’s actions rose to the level of a crime,” Randy Warren, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said in a news release.
Baugh told CNN in a statement that she was grateful for the investigation which she says confirmed that, “no criminal act occurred,” with the vaccination drive curtailing or VIP list.
“I look forward to putting this distraction behind me,” she added.
Baugh’s troubles may not be over though, as the investigative report was forwarded on to the Florida Commission on Ethics, at its request, Warren said. The Florida Department on Ethics would not confirm or deny there was an active investigation.
Baugh did not respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding the ongoing ethics investigations.
The criticism of Baugh, grew after she claimed that she was acting at the behest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, after he spoke with the real estate developer behind Lakewood Ranch, the community where the vaccine drive was organized, according to the report.
Baugh previously said in a commissioner meeting that it was “(her) idea” to choose the two ZIP codes in the county whose residents were permitted to get vaccinated at the vaccine drive.
Baugh made statements to investigators that conflicted with eyewitnesses, her own statements
The investigative report also made note that during their inquiry, Baugh gave several contradictory statements to investigators.
According to the report, Baugh denied that county employees pushed back when she limited the vaccine drive to two wealthy ZIP codes in her district. However, the report said the top two county officials involved in the vaccine drive told investigators they did, “multiple times.”
“Baugh is purported to have rejected their protests and ultimately insisted upon restricting the registrant pool to the two aforementioned zip codes,” the report reads.
She also previously said, in a public statements and in her interview with investigators, that she was acting at the direction of DeSantis. But, according to the report when investigators questioned the governor’s chief of staff Adrian Lukis, he told them that those statements would not be accurate.
When investigators asked Baugh whether she was organizing the event as a private citizen or as a County employee, Baugh — who said she organized much of the vaccine drive over her county email account — wavered in her answer. At first, Baugh said she was acting as a private citizen, but that it was hard to say since she was utilizing county personnel, according to the report.
However, when a county employee asked for a contact person for the governor’s office, Baugh purportedly responded, “I’m the Chair. Is the Chair not good enough?”
Baugh did not respond to CNN’s questions about why her statements conflicted with eyewitnesses, and her own statements.
Why investigators didn’t press charges
In explaining why they declined to press charges against Baugh, the report emphasizes that it’s a question of ethics, not criminal wrongdoing.
Two of the alleged Florida statue violations — misuse of public position and misuse of confidential information — are not criminal offenses and aren’t under the purview of the Sheriff’s office, the report says.
“While the practice of taking a course of action in return for favorable political consideration may present certain ethical issues, it does not, under these circumstances, warrant criminal indictment,” the report says.
The report found that while there was evidence that Baugh, “knowingly and intentionally attempted to obtain a benefit for herself and others, there is no evidence to suggest she falsified or caused any other person to falsify any official records or documents.” Baugh, according to the report, did not alter or mutilate official records or documents because county employees created a new pool.
It also found that she did not receive a benefit from creating the VIP list; Baugh said that she did not get vaccinated at the vaccine drive as a result of the criticism she received.
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CNN’s Rosa Flores, Sara Weisfeldt and Scottie Andrew contributed to this report.