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A Florida county commissioner is facing growing calls to resign over her 'disgusting abuse of power' after she created a 'VIP list' of vaccine recipients from two wealthy zip codes - and also added herself to the exclusive list.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh worked with the state to open the exclusive three-day pop-up vaccination site at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch for residents living in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes.

Baugh admitted she directed staff to give the 3,000 per day vaccine doses only to residents aged 65 and over in the two affluent zip codes, which cover some of the richest neighborhoods in Florida.

She also bumped herself, Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen, Jensen's father and two of her former neighbors who didn't live in the zip codes onto the VIP list.

The scandal comes as the remaining roughly 110,000 Manatee County residents aged 65 and over must wait on standby to be randomly selected for the vaccine under the county's lottery system.  

But, despite the growing outrage on the violation of the county's vaccine allocation process, the Manatee County Commission voted Tuesday not to remove her from the commission.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh (pictured) is facing growing calls to resign over her 'disgusting abuse of power' after she created a 'VIP list' of vaccine recipients from two wealthy zip codes - and also added herself to the exclusive list

Local residents and the Manatee County Democratic party are demanding Baugh stand down from her role in setting up the state-run site that many have slammed for its 'favoritism'.  

Manatee County Democratic Party's Tracy Pratt said Baugh had 'betrayed' voters by sidelining the system put in place to create equal opportunities to get the vaccine. 

'Vanessa Baugh is an elected official who has betrayed the trust as a voters by creating a pay to play VIP system that benefits her and a select few in the community,' Pratt said, according to WFLA. 

Congressman Charlie Crist also wrote a letter to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation into Governor Ron DeSantis' selection of locations for vaccine sites, saying sites had been chosen for political motives.

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'He brings 3,000 vaccines to Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, an affluent community and a lovely community quite frankly and says, you know, we are going to give 3,000 vaccines to the people in this community and nobody else in Manatee County can get them; nobody in the inner city, nobody in the brown or black communities,' he said.

'This is mostly a white, affluent, Republican community I should add.' 

A group of around 30 protesters descended on the Manatee County administration building Tuesday morning holding aloft signs reading 'lock her up' and demanding Baugh stand down with immediate effect. 

A petition calling for Baugh's resignation had also reached almost 600 signatures Tuesday. 

One protest organizer called her actions a 'disgusting abuse of power' and called her apology 'deeply disapppointing.'

Baugh worked with the state to open the exclusive three-day pop-up vaccination site at the Premier Sports Campus (above) in Lakewood Ranch for residents living in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes

Baugh admitted she directed staff to give the 3,000 per day vaccine doses only to residents aged 65 and over in the two affluent zip codes, which cover some of the richest neighborhoods in Florida and are home to several white, Republican donors

'Honestly, what she said was deeply disappointing and was not an apology,' Robyne Richardson told the Brandenton Herald. 

'She apologized to the people who received blow back from her actions and said she would do the same thing again. That is not an apology.'

He called for Baugh to resign or be removed from her role as chairwoman if she didn't.

'I believe she doesn't believe she did anything wrong. Nor do I believe she cares,' Richardson said. 

The commission voted 4-3 against the motion to remove Baugh as chairwoman in a public meeting Tuesday morning in the wake of the backlash. 

Commissioners James Satcher, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and George Kruse joined Baugh in declining to remove her, claiming it would cause further division on the board, reported the Bradenton Herald. 

Van Ostenbridge said in the meeting that Baugh 'made a terrible mistake' by 'compromis[ing] the fairness of the lottery system' but that she had apologized.

'Commissioner Baugh made a terrible mistake. She compromised the fairness of the lottery system,' said Van Ostenbridge. 

'The fundamental point of that system was to avoid favoritism and that's exactly what happened when people were hand-selected in certain zip codes. She's apologized and accepted responsibility for her actions. She has to answer to her constituents.' 

Gov. DeSantis (at the site last week) has come under fire for the choice of location of the state-run site 

He added that the steps to remove her was 'an effort to make this hyper-partisan and polarize what's happening.'  

Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore voted in favor of her removal.

Bellamy had urged Baugh's conservative allies to break rank and remove her in order to 'not just to be loyal to the individuals that sit to the left and right of you, but to be loyal to the individuals that voted you in.'

Whitmore added that the board had 'lost our credibility' because of Baugh's actions.

'I don't think it's going to pass and if it doesn't, I hope this community raises heck,' she said.  

Baugh faced a backlash after emails obtained by WFLA via public records request revealed she had directed staff to manipulate the database on vaccine allocation. 

The Department of Health in Manatee County has a wait list program for the vaccine that randomly selects eligible residents - full- or part-time Florida residents aged 65 and older - from a standby pool.

It emerged Baugh had sidelined this lottery system for the Lakewood Ranch site to pull only residents from the two zip codes. 

The site, which DeSantis visited last week, was giving out around 3,000 shots a day during its three-day pop-up. 

Baugh also added five VIPs not included in this group she deemed eligible including herself to receive the shots, emails showed.  

When her ploy was rumbled, Baugh fired back that it was a 'great idea'.

'I will tell you that personally, yes, I would help do it again anywhere in Manatee County if we could get more vaccine. 

'To me, that is what is important here — the number of vaccines that are coming into Manatee County. Did I even stop to think that this board and others would be upset over it? No, to be honest, I thought it was a great idea,' Baugh said last Tuesday.

Two days later, Baugh apologized and admitted she did fix the list.

'I want to apologize to all the residents I have disappointed, according to some news outlets,' Baugh said at a public meeting Thursday. 

'It is true that I sent the email because I wanted to make sure certain people were on the list.'

She also apologized to the governor before adding that she 'did exactly what he wanted.'

'I also, again, want to apologize to Gov. DeSantis,' said Baugh. 

'And I don't do that because I feel that I'm putting him in jeopardy because of Lakewood Ranch. I did exactly what he wanted. And I'm thankful for that.'

DeSantis tried to distance himself from the scandal telling reporters last week 'you’ll have to ask them why they do it

The governor came under fire last week over the choice of the vaccination pop-up as he reportedly picked the Lakewood Ranch location.

According to state data, Lakewood Ranch is one of the richest neighborhoods in Florida with an average household income in the 34202 zip code of $136,423 and $132,357 in the 34211 zip code.  

The neighborhood is also associated with heavy Republican donors. 

DeSantis claimed the area was chosen because it had a high elderly population.

'We wanted to find communities that have high levels of seniors living in there, and this obviously has a high concentration,' he said.

'You look at all these different communities, and there is a lot of senior citizens. If there were few senior citizens, then you wouldn't have set up a pod here.' 

However the two zip codes do not have more seniors or more virus cases than many neighboring zip codes. 

The nearby zip code of 34205 has more seniors and more COVID-19 cases per capita, reported WFLA. 

This isn't the first time DeSantis has come under fire for giving special vaccine access to Florida's white, wealthy residents. 

Earlier this month Tampa Bay church leaders called for better vaccine outreach to communities of color, referencing state data that showed that more than 85,000 black people had been vaccinated compared to 1.1 million white people.   

Rev Dr Wayne Thompson from First Institutional Baptist Church in St Pete told WFLA at the time: 'We know we are not asking to get in front of anyone. We just want to have our fair share our equal access to it and get our people vaccinated.' 

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Exclusive: Biden in No Rush to Lift Venezuela Sanctions, Seeks 'Serious Steps' by Maduro

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden’s administration is in “no rush” to lift U.S. sanctions on Venezuela but would consider easing them if President Nicolas Maduro takes confidence-building steps showing he is ready to negotiate seriously with the opposition, a White House official told Reuters.

Signaling that the new U.S. president may be unlikely to loosen the screws on Venezuela anytime soon, the official emphasized that existing sanctions have enough special provisions to allow for humanitarian aid shipments to help Venezuelans cope with economic hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Maduro’s Socialist government has been “actively preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

This suggests that for now Biden is prepared to stick with the specific sanctions, including crippling oil-sector penalties, imposed by former President Donald Trump on the OPEC nation, despite the failure to force Maduro from power.

But Biden, by contrast, intends to move away from the mostly unilateral approach of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and enlist more countries to help seek a diplomatic solution, the official said in an interview.

Biden’s administration has made clear it will continue to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Dozens of countries have backed Guaido’s claim following Maduro’s re-election in 2018 in a vote Western governments called a sham, though cracks recently have appeared in Guaido's international support.

“We’re in no rush to lift sanctions,” the official said. “If the regime undertakes confidence-building measures that show that they're ready and willing to engage in real conversations with the opposition ... if they're ready to take serious steps, then we will consider the alleviation of sanctions."

The official did not specify what steps Maduro would need to make but said he could not be allowed to use negotiations as a “delaying tactic” to consolidate power and divide the opposition, as he has been accused of doing in the past.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet, has shown no signs of giving ground. Having retained support of the military as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran, he has rejected or ignored previous demands for such concessions.

The Biden administration also appears to have little sense of urgency for major gestures toward Cuba despite hopes for a softer approach after Trump, often citing its support for Maduro, rolled back historic Obama-era détente with Havana.

Some Biden advisers had suggested earlier that he could start by loosening up the flow of remittances from Cuban Americans and ease restrictions on family travel to the Communist-ruled island.

But while acknowledging such changes could have a positive impact, the official said a Cuba policy shift was not currently among Biden’s top priorities, which include the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery and rebuilding alliances abroad.

“Frankly, first things first,” the official said.

There has also been no sign of any immediate plans to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, though Biden officials have said Trump’s last-minute decision to return Havana to the U.S. blacklist is under review.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Nick Zieminski)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

Tags: Venezuela, United States

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