Evidence Mounts in Florida of Friends-First Vaccine Plan by DeSantis

Opponents say a troubling pattern in vaccine distribution has emerged showing favoritism toward the wealthy counties that are home to Republican donors. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, speaking on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee, Fla. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Amid new reports that coronavirus vaccines made their way to a wealthy Florida enclave back in January, a state official invited the FBI on Thursday to investigate whether Governor Ron DeSantis has been playing favorites in the pandemic.

“If red carpet vaccine distribution for political contributions isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, tweeted this morning after a press conference in the Florida capital.

Fried called for the investigation after the Miami Herald broke the story that the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo had vaccinated more than 1,200 residents — nearly the whole community — by Jan. 22 while statewide at-risk seniors struggled to make appointments for their own doses.

DeSantis himself is a resident of the gated enclave in the Florida Keys, as is Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois, who cut DeSantis a check for $250,000 last month, one week after he turned 65, the minimum age at the time for a vaccination in Florida.

Before Ocean Reef began vaccinating its residents, a political committee for DeSantis received 17 donations from Key Largo by December 2020, according to campaign-finance records reviewed by the Herald. All 17 are residents of Ocean Reef.

Fried noted in her press conference that the story is the latest in a troubling trend.

“First we saw it in Sarasota County: $125,000 campaign donation, pop-up site,” she said.  “We also saw it in Charlotte County: $50,000 campaign donation, pop-up site.”

A third site to vaccinate residents against Covid-19 popped up in Manatee County. All three of the selected communities were developed by Pat Neal, a Republican fundraiser who contributed $125,000 to DeSantis in 2018 and 2019.

DeSantis later countered that the state “wasn’t involved in it in any shape or form” with distributing the vaccines at Ocean Reef, which is part of Monroe County.

Kristen Livengood, a spokeswoman for the county, said the allocations were coordinated through the state and a medical center at Ocean Reef that is an affiliate of Baptist Health Hospital. Baptist got the vaccines as part of the governor’s program to vaccinate communities with 65-and-up populations.

Before reaching out to the FBI this morning, Commissioner Fried wrote on Monday to Congressmen James Clyburn and Steve Scalise, the bipartisan heads of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. 

Referring to reports from the Herald, Fried said DeSantis “allegedly withheld” vaccine doses from the predominantly Cuban-American population of Hialeah because its mayor was critical of the governor’s leadership during the pandemic. 

“These disturbing incidents are indicative of an inept distribution of vaccines at best, and corrupt political patronage at worst,” she wrote. 

Fried also pointed to racial disparities in how vaccines have been distributed through the state. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, white people make up 75% of the state and have so far received 80% of the vaccinations. Hispanic people had received 17% of vaccinations despite making up 27% of the state, and Black people make up 16% of the state and have received only 7% of vaccinations. 

Last month, the Department of Justice received an invitation to investigate DeSantis from Florida Congressman Charlie Crist, a Democrat based in St. Petersburg.

Crist referred to the pop-up vaccination site that the governor opened in in Lakewood Ranch, a wealthy, predominantly white, area of Manatee County that has some of the lowest Covid-infection rates in the county.

“Lakewood Ranch’s parent company is owned by one of the largest Republican donors in the country,” Crist writes, “including contributing over $900,000 to the governor.” 

Evidence against DeSantis has been mounting since the winter after the supermarket chain Publix made four $25,000 campaign donations to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political action committee in December 2020.

By mid-January, 105 Publix stores were offerings vaccines in 12 Florida counties. All of them were won by President Donald Trump.  

“I will not stand by and let our vaccines be used for political gain, and to go to be auctioned to the highest bidders,” Commissioner Fried said during her press conference. She highlighted that the governor had had his best campaign fundraising month since 2018 right after the vaccine was rolled out. The Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC raised $2.7 million in February alone. 

Representatives for the governor did not respond to a request for comment. 

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