Marco Island reopened COVID-19 vaccine probe after suspending chiefs for 30 days

Marco Island City Manager Mike McNees briefly reopened the investigation into misuse of a COVID-19 vaccine registration system by the city's police and fire chiefs after suspending them for 30 days but did not issue additional sanctions, city emails show.

McNees suspended Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano and Fire-Rescue Chief Christopher Byrne starting Feb. 8 after a city investigation found Frazzano's husband, William Frazzano, 65, booked a vaccine appointment on an online platform administered by Collier County EMS before the city published the registration link on its website and social media accounts Jan. 20.

The investigation led by McNees also found that county staff alerted Byrne of the breach minutes before the registration link was made available to the public but that Byrne failed to report it and allowed William Frazzano to get the vaccine at the city's first vaccination clinic Jan. 22.

McNees said he reopened the investigation on Feb. 8, four days after announcing the chiefs' suspensions, because he was made aware of a text message exchange between Tracy Frazzano and her husband. McNees completed the new investigation Feb. 9.

More:Marco Island police, fire chiefs each suspended 30 days starting Feb. 8

In case you missed it:Marco Island allows people 40 or older to register for the COVID-19 vaccine

On Jan. 20, an hour before the city had planned to publish the vaccine registration link on its website and social media, Tracy Frazzano sent the link to her husband via text message from her private phone, a photo provided by the city shows. "Here is the link for 2pm. Try going in right before 2," Tracy Frazzano wrote.

"Your (sic) registered. I talked with the people who run it and you are fine," Tracy Frazzano wrote to her husband 15 minutes before the city published the link.

Marco Island Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano sent to her husband William Frazzano a link from a Collier County Eventbrite account to make an appointment for himself to get the COVID-19 vaccine during the city's first vaccination clinic. Tracy Frazzano sent the link to her husband an hour before the city made the link available to the public on Jan. 20, 2021.

City emails show McNees, in consultation with the city attorney, emailed Tracy Frazzano on Feb. 8 requesting a copy of the text message exchange between her and her husband because of "apparent inconsistencies" with her previous statements in which she said she did not know the reservation system would work before 2 p.m.

"There were some questions about text messages that had been exchanged and I wanted to ask about those and get to the bottom of what is that about," McNees said March 12.

Tracy Frazzano declined an interview with the Marco Eagle, but in her email response to McNees on Feb. 8 she wrote she did not know the registration system would allow people to make reservations before 2 p.m.

"The text, 'try going in right before 2pm' was to have him start the process of using the computer for when the site went live at 2pm. He is not computer savvy and has difficulty navigating," Tracy Frazzano wrote in the email to McNees.

In the same email, Tracy Frazzano wrote that Byrne called her before 2 p.m. on Jan. 20 to tell her that her husband was registered for the vaccine. 

"I told him to 'remove him from the list.' Chris (Byrne) informed me he spoke with the people running the site and said to leave my husband on the list," Tracy Frazzano wrote.

Byrne declined to comment.

From February:Marco Island announces new system for residents to make COVID-19 vaccination appointments

Marco Island Fire-Rescue Chief Christopher Byrne speaks during a ceremony in Fire Station 50 to honor Fire Marshal Ray Munyon as he retires after 30 years of service on the island on Dec. 17, 2020.

McNees said he was satisfied with Tracy Frazzano's answers and that he no longer thought there were inconsistencies with her statements.

"There are many ways that the text could have been interpreted. I wanted to be sure that there wasn't anything reflected in that text message that was inconsistent with what I had heard from Tracy Frazzano in my interviews with her," McNees said.

McNees said telling residents and the media he had reopened the investigation for a short period of time might have done more harm than good.

"It was going to create a lot more confusion than getting my questions answered and moving forward. I don't think that anyone can argue that I was anything else but completely transparent throughout this process," McNees said.

In January, the city twice used the free event management website Eventbrite to allow city residents and nonresidents to register to get the vaccine on the island, and the slots were filled within minutes.

In February, the city announced a new registration system for full-time and seasonal residents 65 and older, where appointments would be assigned starting with Marco's oldest residents. The city selected the new registration system to prioritize older local residents, replacing the first come-first served model the city used in January, McNees said at the time.

A contract shows the city agreed to pay up to $49,000 until June 9 for the new system and related services.

The vendor would assist with assigning and notifying pre-registered individuals with their scheduled appointments for vaccinations, the contract shows. It would also provide the city with spreadsheets of the people scheduled for each week and provide customer support and services via email, text and calls.

Marco Island Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano speaks during a City Council meeting on Oct. 19, 2020.

"There won't be any city employees directly involved in selecting who gets the vaccination. It will be the vendor based on the priorities we set," McNees said at the time.

The city announced late last month that it had delivered over 2,000 vaccine doses in partnership with Collier County EMS since the city began using the new system.

Tracy Frazzano: 'I was not trying to beat any system' 

The reopening of the investigation is not the only detail of this case that had been unknown to the public.

On Feb. 2, during the first investigation, McNees interviewed the chiefs separately and recorded audio of both conversations. These recordings revealed what McNees found "troubling" and how he thought the incident could impact the city.

During the interview with Byrne, McNees said he found "troubling" that Byrne waited eight days to tell him what happened while he (McNees) was publicly defending the city against accusations of preferential treatment during the vaccine registration process.

On Jan. 22, the same day William Frazzano received the vaccine, the city published a statement from McNees on Facebook that people did not need to know somebody who works for the city to get the vaccine. 

"That’s not how it works here," McNees wrote.

McNees told Byrne during the interview he had been unsuccessful in finding a vaccine for himself.

"I aggressively defended the city from the accusation that the way you got a vaccine was to know somebody, and I said, 'No, that's not how it works here.' In fact, I'm the guy everybody thinks you are supposed to know, and I can't get one myself," McNees said to Byrne.

Christopher Byrne returned to the MIFD, where he has spent virtually his entire career, as Fire Chief in September of 2020.

McNees told Byrne he should have alerted him earlier about what had happened.

"You see my response to people, that I'm defending that, defending our process, and for whatever reason, a week down the road, and (it) didn't seem compelling to you or important to you (to say): 'Hey boss, you are sticking your neck out here; there might be something you want to know. Our own house might not be as pure as you are arguing that it is,'" McNees said to Byrne.

"I believed that was true and obviously it wasn't true because the truth was we do work that way," McNees said to Byrne.

Byrne told McNees he had "every intention" to tell him what had happened.

"It was eating me alive watching you defend (the city)," Byrne said.

Byrne told McNees he allowed William Frazzano to get vaccinated out of compassion because Tracy Frazzano has cancer, making her more vulnerable to COVID-19.

"It was a lapse of judgment. Rarely is compassion the wrong thing to do," Byrne said.

Marco Island Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano looks towards City Councilor Victor Rios during a Council meeting on Sept 9, 2020 as he justifies the approval of a resolution in support of the police department amid nationwide protests against police violence.

During the interview with Tracy Frazzano, McNees asked her why she allowed her husband to get the vaccine after learning he had made the reservation before the Eventbrite link was available to the public.

Tracy Frazzano told McNees she did not consider telling him what happened because Byrne, who is in charge of the city's vaccine operation, said it was OK. Later in the interview, Tracy Frazzano said Byrne gave her the impression that it was OK. 

Frazzano also told McNees she had no ill intent in doing what she did. 

"I was not trying to beat any system," Frazzano said to McNees. 

McNees told Frazzano she beat the system whether it was her intention or not.

"Getting the shot was beating the system," McNees said to Tracy Frazzano.

Marco Island chiefs moving forward

During the interview, McNees told Frazzano people thought she was one of several people "who was going to help with this island" when the city hired her in 2019.

Frazzano was hired after former Marco Island Police Chief Al Schettino was forced to retire earlier that year following numerous incidents and questionable leadership decisions.

Frazzano told McNees she can still help the city. Later in the interview she said she was sorry and that she will "work very hard to be better."

Marco Island Police Department Chief Tracy L. Frazzano assists other first responders in securing a person to a stretcher following a car accident at northbound N. Collier Blvd. by Yellowbird St. in Marco Island on Feb. 25, 2020.

"I feel like I can still do a lot of great things here if given the chance," Frazzano said to McNees. "I promise I won't let you down."

Byrne also apologized to McNees during his interview.

"If I'm given a chance I will absolutely commit myself to restore your trust and the community's trust. I will make it my duty every day," Byrne said to McNees.

Marco Island City Council Chairman Jared Grifoni said April 4 that he briefly spoke with both chiefs about what happened.

"I think they have both served their suspensions and I'm fully confident in their ability going forward to best represent both the police department and the fire-rescue department," Grifoni said.

Grifoni also lauded McNees for doing a quick investigation while keeping City Council and the public informed about its status and conclusion.

City Councilor Becky Irwin said she thinks the chiefs are committed to their jobs and to Marco Island residents.

"I want everybody to understand that they are in very good hands with these people as the head of our departments," Irwin said.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.