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Ethics Commission Approves Baugh Settlement

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Commission on Ethics voted to approve a joint stipulation between Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and the state’s advocate. By agreeing to the settlement, Baugh admits that she abused her position as an elected official, will pay an $8,000 fine, and will receive public reprimand and censure.

Baugh appeared before state ethics commissioners in a Tallahassee courtroom on Friday, where she made brief comments and answered questions from ethics commissioners following opening statements given by the state advocate and Baugh’s counsel.

Representing the state, Advocate Elizabeth Miller opened the proceeding by telling ethics commissioners that Baugh abused her position when she organized a vaccine pop-up in Lakewood Ranch that only catered to residents of two zip codes within Lakewood Ranch–a community in Baugh’s district.

Miller also told the commissioners that Baugh further abused her position when she placed her name, along with the names of four other individuals, on a list intended to guarantee Baugh and those she had selected appointments at the pop-up. Miller stressed that the actions undertaken by Baugh occurred during a time when the COVID-19 vaccines were a "limited resource."

Miller stated that by agreeing to the joint stipulation, Baugh admits to using, or attempting to use, her position as an elected official to the benefit or privilege of herself or others.

"Also," Miller explained about the terms of the agreement, "she admits that her actions were corrupt."

Before offering comments of her own, Baugh’s attorney told commissioners that Baugh "takes the complaints very seriously" and that the complaints and ethics proceedings have affected the way Baugh conducts herself as a commissioner, "in a positive way."

In her remarks, Baugh told the commission that she had always tried to be a "good commissioner" and that she had learned a lot from the experience. Baugh said that she hoped the commissioners would accept her apology and approve the settlement terms.

"I made a mistake, which I wholeheartedly understand," said Baugh. "I take responsibility for that."

When the settlement agreement transmits to the governor for signature, it will also include an additional stipulation requiring that the $8,000 fine must be paid by Commissioner Baugh. The commissioner’s legal fees, however, can not be written into any stipulation, as those are not sanctioned consequences assigned by the state.

When Baugh was questioned by Ethics Commissioner Wengay Newton Sr., who believed should be responsible for paying her legal expenses, Baugh confirmed that she believed it was her responsibility alone. Baugh went a bit further and assured the commission that she had no intention, now or in the future, of seeking the county or taxpayers to reimburse her legal fees incurred during the case proceedings.

Despite Baugh’s statements, some commission members were vocal in their disapproval of her actions–two voting against approval of the settlement. Ethics Commissioner Don Gaetz said he found local news reports from Manatee County "disconcerting," stressing that comments attributed to Baugh appeared to be dismissive, deflecting, and without acceptance of personal responsibility.

"When you go home, please don’t try to smooth over this or place an improper construction on what occurred here today,"Gaetz advised Baugh. "Please go home and say and do as you have here today. Admit that you were wrong, admit that you violated the code of ethics, and show contrition."

Ethics Commissioner Glenton Gilzean Jr. questioned why the agreement did not afford the maximum penalty available–a $10,000 fine per violation, or removal from office. The state's advocate answered Glizean by explaining that it was an assessment made based on the settlement and its inclusion of an admission of guilt while avoiding potentially expensive and lengthy proceedings through the Department of Administrative Hearings, where there was no guarantee she would be found responsible or held to account by an administrative law judge.

Newtown appeared unsatisfied with the advocate’s explanation. He said that in his view, Baugh’s actions were "no mistake" but deliberate and calculated. For those reasons, Newton said an $8,000 fine was a "travesty."

Newton then directed his comments to Ms. Miller, expressing his frustration with the matter being settled for seemingly so little without the case having gone through the hearing process. "Of all the cases I have heard up here, this is a slam dunk. Ray Charles can see what went on here," Newton said.

Though Newton was outspoken before the vote in his intention not to support approval, Gaetz stated that while he believed the advocate negotiated the settlement in good faith, his vote to approve would be made with "reluctance" due to the advocate not seeking a greater fine.

Some commissioners pointed out that Baugh would also be paying the price with her reputation besides the settlement. Commissioner William Cervone said that he was not entirely happy with the terms of the settlement either, but added, "This lady–more than criminal defendants ever would–is going to have to answer to the court of public opinion when this is all said and done too."
To watch the approximately 20-minute proceeding, including all comments and deliberations made by both parties and ethics commissioners, click the video below.


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