TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried on Thursday demanded an FBI investigation into what she called "public corruption" by Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine in the Sunshine State.
"If this isn't public corruption, I don't know what is," Fried said during a news conference in Tallahassee.
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Fried cited a recent report in the Miami Herald which said the Ocean Reef Club, a wealthy gated community in the Florida Keys, was given priority access to the vaccine in January, at a time when much of the state's residents were struggling to obtain an appointment.
The Miami Herald reported that many wealthy Republican donors live in the Ocean Reef Club community.
Among those donors is Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois who contributed $250,000 to DeSantis' political campaign. Seventeen other Ocean Reef residents gave $5,000 each to DeSantis' campaign, according to the Miami Herald.
"I don't need a law degree from Harvard to know that when there is smoke, there is fire," Fried said. "The fact pattern is simply just too clear to avoid. Give campaign contributions, big dollars, get special access to vaccines."
Fried said her office is in communication with the FBI and is asking the FBI's Public Corruption Unit to investigate.
"Getting to the front of the line because you have access, and you have the financial ability, is just unacceptable," Fried said.
DeSantis responded to the allegations on Thursday, calling the article a "train wreck" and a "poorly executed hit piece."
"That was not a site that we were involved in in the Keys," DeSantis said. "We just weren't involved with it in any way, shape, or form."
Instead, DeSantis claimed the Ocean Reef Club site was organized by a local hospital system during the early stages of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout when hospitals and county health departments were the primary sources of administering doses.
"That was not a state site. It was not anything that that state set up," DeSantis said. "It was done through one of the hospital systems that had vaccine. They thought it made sense to go and do 65 and plus. And I think it was a smart decision to do that."
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While the DeSantis Administration has repeatedly been accused of giving wealthy communities priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the governor on Thursday said he's not focused on income brackets when it comes to inoculating residents.
"It's the age, not the income, that shows the risk," DeSantis said. "And so, if they were able to go in a community that was heavily senior and vaccinate people, that's very, very good."
Fried responded to the governor's claims by saying she's hoping an FBI investigation will hold the state accountable for who receives shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine.
"If it's a hospital who's doing this, we still have to have a paper trail. How did it get to the hospitals? Who made the specific request?" Fried said. "There's a lot of unanswered questions and a huge amount of paper trail that we need to be uncovered."
Many political pundits have suggested that Fried is building a potential run for governor against DeSantis in 2022, something she was asked about on Thursday.
"My No. 1 priority has always been the citizens of our state," Fried said. "This is something that has to be a priority for everybody. I just have an opportunity to be an elected official and taking this very seriously. This is the type of corruption that I have vowed from day one, being the commissioner, to fight against."