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Top Florida Democrat calls on FBI to investigate DeSantis over vaccine distribution

Florida’s highest-ranking elected Democrat is calling on the FBI to investigate allegations that Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida Senate appears unlikely to pass transgender sports bill Florida state lawmaker entering race to succeed Hastings DeSantis signs 'anti-riot bill' cracking down on 'public disorder' MORE (R) has used the state’s coronavirus vaccination initiative to direct vaccines to select communities in exchange for political contributions.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried accused DeSantis in a press conference on Thursday of engaging in vaccine favoritism, in which the state steered vaccine pop-up sites to communities associated with wealthy political donors, while other residents have struggled to receive their shots.

“The fact pattern is simply just too clear to avoid,” said Fried, who is seen as a prospective candidate for governor in 2022. “Give campaign contribution big dollars, get special access to vaccines. Ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farmworkers, and so many of our residents here in the state of Florida who are scared and wanting these vaccines. If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is.”

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“I know that we will get to the bottom of this,” she continued. “So I am asking the FBI public corruption unit to be investigating this.”

Fried’s remarks came after The Miami Herald published a story revealing that nearly all residents 65 and older in a wealthy enclave of Key Largo had been vaccinated for COVID-19 in January, even as many of Florida’s most vulnerable residents scrambled to find available vaccines.

All of the Key Largo residents who have donated to DeSantis’s political committee live in that specific enclave, called Ocean Reef Club, and all contributed $5,000 to the committee through December 2020, the Herald reported. 

About a month after the vaccinations in Ocean Reef Club, one of the community’s wealthy residents, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois, wrote DeSantis’s political committee a check for $250,000.

DeSantis has denied the Herald’s story, calling it a “poorly executed hit piece.” He said that neither he nor the state had anything to do with the vaccination site in Ocean Reef Club, and that the vaccines must have come from a hospital system, noting that hospitals were receiving most doses of the vaccines early this year.

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“That was not a site that we were involved in, in the Keys,” DeSantis said. “That was one of the South Florida hospital systems [that] went to this community of seniors. I think that’s great. I want seniors to get shots, I think they did a good job of doing that. We just weren’t involved with it in any way, shape, or form.”

DeSantis has faced down questions for weeks, however, over whether the state had given preference in vaccine distribution to wealthy communities out of political consideration.

Three communities in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties on Florida’s west coast that DeSantis chose for pop-up vaccination sites last month were developed by a wealthy GOP donor who had given more than $100,000 to DeSantis in 2018 and 2019. 

Another potential Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP draws line on taxes; nation braces for Chauvin verdict The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax MORE (D-Fla.), a former Republican who served as Florida governor from 2007 until 2011, called last month for acting state Attorney General Monty Wilkinson to investigate concerns over favoritism in vaccine distribution in Manatee County. 

DeSantis brushed off Crist’s calls, saying that “some people who are more upset at me for vaccinating seniors than they are for other governors whose policies have killed seniors.”

“That is a joke,” DeSantis said of Crist’s demand.