Top Florida Democrats on Thursday called on two federal agencies to look into reports that question whether select vaccines for wealthy residents were related to campaign donations to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis denies any wrongdoing.
Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat and an attorney, called on the FBI to look into the reports.
State Sen. Gary Farmer, the highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and also a lawyer, called on the U.S. Department of Justice to look into “potential wrongdoing.”
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat and former governor of Florida, also sent a letter Feb. 21 to the Department of Justice, following news reports suggesting that DeSantis was exercising favoritism in distribution of vaccines. Those reports include this one in the Florida Phoenix.
Samantha Ramirez, Crist’s press assistant in Washington, D.C., said the DOJ had not yet responded.
On Thursday, Fried and Farmer referred to a Miami Herald report published Wednesday about residents of the affluent Ocean Reef club community in Key Largo getting first and second vaccine doses in mid-January when vaccines were still very scarce elsewhere in Florida.
The article did not draw a direct connection between DeSantis and the vaccinations but did report that “numerous residents” of Ocean Reef each made campaign donations of $5,000 or more to the governor’s political committee, according to the Herald.
“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Fried said in a press conference. “We’ve learned 1,200 of the residents of the wealthy enclave in January got vaccines while so many of our seniors were struggling to get onto websites, to get in lines, to get on the phones.”
“Our governor, just as the vaccines were being rolled out, he had his best fundraising month since 2018: $2.7 million in February. This is not a coincidence. This is not an accident,” Fried said.
Like Commissioner Fried, Sen. Farmer of Broward County questioned how certain communities quickly got vaccines while so many others struggled to even get in line for them.
“Governor DeSantis’ clear vaccine priority for wealthy individuals appears to be intimately tied to political payments, an extremely troubling pay-to-play scheme if the allegations are borne out,” Farmer wrote to Acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson.
“Furthermore, late last month another Ocean Reef resident furnished DeSantis’ political committee with a $250,000 donation,” Farmer’s letter continues. The Herald identified that resident as Bruce Rauner, former Republican governor of Illinois.
“This is only the most recent report of Governor DeSantis’ top donors being given priority vaccine access, and is reflected by a record month of $2.7 million in contributions to his political committee in February of this year,” Farmer’s letter said.
Farmer told reporters at a press conference, “You have some very strong indicia there of preferential treatment. The governor just came off a record month of fundraising.”
Reporters asked DeSantis about the Miami Herald article Thursday morning at a press conference he held in Crystal River to announce a vaccination site there. He called the news report “a hit piece” and claimed to play no role in the vaccinations administered in Ocean Reef.
“That was not a site we were involved in, in the Keys. What that was was one of the South Florida hospital systems that went to that community to vaccinate a lot of seniors. … They thought it made sense to go and do [age] 65 and plus, and I think it was a smart decision to do that,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022 and is considered a contender for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential race.
Fried is up for re-election in 2022 and is considered a contender in the governor’s race, as is Crist.