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.”