Ron DeSantis answers questions during a press conference touting the expanded rollout of the Moderna vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital on Jan. 4, 2021, in Longwood, Fla..

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions during a press conference touting the expanded rollout of the Moderna vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital on Jan. 4, 2021, in Longwood, Fla. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

MANATEE, Fla. — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is calling on the Department of Justice to investigate whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' "blatantly political vaccine distribution decisions" — including a pop-up site reserved only for residents of two Lakewood Ranch ZIP codes — violate federal law.

Crist, a Florida Democrat and former governor, sent a letter to acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson on Sunday, writing that DeSantis is "establishing coronavirus vaccine distribution and administration sites to select locations to benefit political allies and donors, over the needs of higher risk communities and existing county waitlists."

The exclusive site set up by DeSantis at the Premier Sports Complex last week, with the aid of Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen and Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh, was given as an example of how DeSantis was targeting "wealthy communities with which he has clear political connections, allowing some to skip to the front of the line in counties with existing waitlists."

"Defeating the COVID-19 pandemic must be our top priority. Given the enormous latitude governors have over vaccine distribution, it would be unconscionable for political corruption to trump both fairness and the best medical guidance. These are literally life and death decisions," Crist said in his letter.

Crist, who reportedly is considering a run for governor in 2022, went on to say, "While I am anxious for every Floridian, in every community, to get the vaccine as soon as possible, it should be done based on fairness, not political connection. As a former Florida governor and attorney general, these issues of equity and fairness matter deeply to me. I request that the Department of Justice determine if the governor's blatantly political vaccine distribution decisions, which do not seem to be in the public's best interest, violate federal law and merit a full federal investigation."

Last week's three-day event in Lakewood Ranch selected 3,000 residents from Manatee County's standby vaccine pool, but only if were listed as living in the 34211 or 34202 ZIP codes. In addition to be among the wealthiest ZIP codes in the county, they were also among the ZIP codes with the lowest coronavirus infection rates, as previously reported by The Bradenton Herald and cited by Crist in his letter.

DeSantis defended his decision to set up the pop-up site during a news conference he held Feb. 17 at the start of the three-day event.

"If Manatee County doesn't like us doing this, then we are totally fine putting this in counties that want it. We're totally happy to do that," DeSantis said. "Anyone that's saying that, let us know if you want us to send it to Sarasota or Charlotte or Pasco or wherever, let us know — we're happy to do it."

Without consulting with other commissioners, Baugh instructed staff to draw residents of the two ZIP codes from the county's vaccine pool, which had intentionally been created to draw names randomly, regardless of their residency.

Baugh also created a VIP list that included herself, Jensen, Jensen's father and two of Baugh's former neighbors to ensure they received vaccine appointments.

After the backlash, Baugh said she had not received a vaccine and Jensen declined to comment. But Jensen's father confirmed he had received an appointment, which he later declined because he had recently recovered from COVID-19. Baugh's former neighbors, however, did confirm that they were vaccinated.

On Thursday, Baugh apologized for creating the list but denied she was trying to get herself, Jensen and the others ahead of the line.

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