Editor: Did DeSantis break the law? There is a good chance! Certainly he has hit a new low in ethics! Elect Charlie Crist as governor to immediately reverse this downhill slide.
TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Ron DeSantis sent nearly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last month, it appears to have gone against the program guidelines laid out in its bidding process, according to records obtained by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida.
The program was designed “to relocate out of the State of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States,” according to the documents released by the governor’s office Friday evening after a public records request.
The records include a “request for quotes” document that the state used to locate bidding companies to take on the program. It too states that the unauthorized immigrants transported should be in Florida.
In the headlines:
- DeSantis touts plan to ‘profile’ and divert migrants from Florida. Critics claim deception
- Florida legislator sues DeSantis claiming illegal use of state funds for migrant relocation
The budget Florida passed this year also says the money is meant for in-state immigrants, a point that already has become the subject of litigation.
In his 15-page lawsuit, filed last month in Leon County Circuit Court, state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, in part alleges the DeSantis administration failed to meet the requirements set by the Florida Legislature to only transport unauthorized immigrants from within the state.
Named as defendants are DeSantis, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared W. Perdue.
“The state is completely violating the law,” Pizzo told NBC News. “They haven’t provided any scintilla of evidence for how this is legal.”
And that wasn’t the only legal fallout.
A federal class action lawsuit was filed in Boston on behalf of the migrants that accuses the DeSantis administration of deploying a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport them.
And Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, announced his agency had opened an investigation into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” to board flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.
The migrants were picked up in Texas on Sept. 14. Two planes took off from San Antonio, Texas, then went to Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, Florida. From there, one plane went to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and then to Martha’s Vineyard. The other plane went to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to Martha’s Vineyard.
The governor’s office and FDOT did not respond to a Saturday morning media request.
DeSantis has contended that it’s more effective to intercept migrants at the Texas border than to track them down when they arrive in Florida as individuals or in small groups.
“If they get in a car with two other people, there’s no way we’re going to be able to detect that,” he said, adding: “Our view is you’ve got to deal with it at the source and, if they’re intending to come to Florida, and many of them are intending to come to Florida, [this is] our best way to make sure that they end up in a sanctuary jurisdiction.”
Other inconsistencies: A lack of notification that sent a community scrambling
The in-state guidelines weren’t the only inconsistencies the USA TODAY NETWORK -Florida found in the records.
The “request for quotes” documents clearly states it is the responsibility of FDOT to ensure partner agencies notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as local law enforcement “of the Unauthorized Alien’s destination and estimated arrival time.”
But, according to past reporting, local officials were blindsided by the arrival.
“Many don’t know where they are. They say they were told they would be given housing and jobs,” state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, tweeted shortly after their arrival. “Islanders were given no notice but are coming together as a community to support them.”
Price tag and response
The price tag for the Massachusetts flights was initially put at $615,000, but the latest state records show that Florida paid another $950,000 to the Vertol Systems Company, a Destin, Fla.-based aviation firm, bringing the total spent by taxpayers so far to more than $1.5 million.
According to the Vertol agreement obtained by a public records request to FDOT, the company’s services should be on an “ongoing, month-to-month basis” until the end of June.
Before Hurricane Ian struck the state and sparked a massive relief effort, DeSantis said the transports would continue.
“There’s also going to be buses, and there will likely be more flights,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Daytona Beach in September.
The first “project” was to be the transportation services of up 50 passengers to Massachusetts at a cost of $615,000, Vertol Systems CEO James Montgomerie said in a memorandum dated Sept. 6. But Vertol offered a price range from $325,000 for up to eight passengers to $625,000 for up to 65 passengers.
The Miami Herald reported that Larry Keefe, who DeSantis appointed as the state’s “public safety czar” to oversee the governor’s anti-immigration programs, worked for Vertol Systems as legal counsel. The newspaper reported that he represented the firm in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017.
This past legislative session, lawmakers boosted an $8 million request by DeSantis for the program to $12 million, to be administered by FDOT.
The $12 million comes from interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. It provided $350 billion to state and local governments, which the U.S. Treasury said is “to support their response to and recovery from the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
Because the money is from interest, said Alexis Tsoukalas, a Florida Policy Institute policy analyst, it doesn’t fall under the same rules as the federal fund itself. Still, she said last month that the $12 million was “unfaithful to the spirit of the federal aid” and called it a “bizarre loophole.”
At a September news conference in Miami, DeSantis said his migrant relocation program is the “most effective” way to steer asylum seekers and other migrants away from Florida.
“I’ll tell you this, the Legislature gave me $12 million,” DeSantis said in September. “We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida.”
The move angered Democrats, immigrant advocates and others who said the Republican governor was using migrants as “political pawns.” DeSantis said he took the action to call attention to President Biden’s “reckless” border security policies and steer undocumented immigrants away from Florida.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused thousands of immigrants to Democrat-led cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, according to PolitiFact. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, has also sent migrants to the nation’s capital.
In its public records response, the governor’s office said more records would be released at a later date.
Gun Girls made a go at the state bid
One of three quotes included in the records was from a Florida-based company called Gun Girls Inc.
That quote said for $26,000 the company would transport five people from Florida to Massachusetts, bringing along a bilingual officer as well as care packages, lunch, snacks and water for the passengers.
In a Saturday morning interview, the company’s president, Susan Kushlin, had only this to say to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida: “We were not involved in that at all.”
Kushlin told the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times earlier, though, that she was bidding to transport via bus or commercial flights between five and 20 “illegal aliens” – who DeSantis administration officials said had committed “non-violent crimes.”
But even before boarding planes to Massachusetts, the migrants, according to their lawyers, were in the country legally because they were seeking political asylum and their cases were pending before immigration judges in various courts around the country. Most of the cases have since been transferred to the Boston area.
Kushlin said that her company couldn’t have pulled off the operation that happened.
“We transport prisoners by contract. That’s all we do,” Kushlin told the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times. “We don’t do anything like what they did. That’s not our business.”
Kushlin told The Boston Globe she had been waiting several months to get definitive word on the bid. According to her bid, the transport was originally slated for the second week of August.
Contributed: USA Today, PolitiFact.
USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule