Florida’s migrant flights may have violated law, new documents show

Newly disclosed documents from the state’s transportation department describe the program as moving migrants “out of” Florida.
Gov. Ron DeSantis took questions from reporters about flights of migrants from Florida to Martha's Vineyard at a news conference in Bradenton.
Gov. Ron DeSantis took questions from reporters about flights of migrants from Florida to Martha's Vineyard at a news conference in Bradenton. [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | Bradenton Herald ]
Published Oct. 7, 2022|Updated Oct. 10, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Documents obtained from the state agency charged with managing the controversial migrant relocation program explicitly say that its mission was “to relocate out of the State of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States,’’ according to records obtained Friday by the Times/Herald.

That may pose a problem for Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose administration paid a Destin-based aviation company, Vertol Systems Co., more than $1.56 million to transport migrants — including two Sept. 14 flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, even though the 48 Venezuelan passengers never set foot in Florida.

Related: Florida migrant flight money went to company tied to DeSantis adviser

The documents released Friday provide a deeper look into the carefully organized plan by the governor to use the Florida Department of Transportation to relocate migrants to another part of the country, an exercise that has drawn national attention and reignited the polarizing debate over immigration in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Obtained through public records requests to the Department of Transportation and the governor’s office, the documents show that the discussions about the relocation program began in July with Rebekah Davis, Department of Transportation general counsel, seeking quotes for charter flights.

Neither the department nor the governor’s office responded Friday to requests for explanations and comments on the documents.

Vertol CEO James L. Montgomerie provided quotes to transport passengers to Boston and Los Angeles, but his quotes only included up to eight passengers on a King Air 350 Turbo Prop. The governor’s office had bigger plans, and although Vertol was ultimately chosen to handle the flights, records show that Ohio-based Ultimate JetCharters was subcontracted to handle the transport of the migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.

The planes stopped for less than 30 minutes in Crestview, where Vertol has its main flight operations. No passengers left the plane while it was in Crestview, and no new passengers boarded.

Related: Reports identify mystery recruiter tied to DeSantis migrant flights as Tampa woman

Another round of flights by Ultimate JetCharters was scheduled a week later, the Miami Herald has learned. Under those plans, migrants were to be transported from Texas to Delaware — the home state of President Joe Biden — but that trip was canceled without explanation, leaving migrants stranded in San Antonio.

According to state finance records, there were at least three projects planned.

Montgomerie agreed his company would “provide to FDOT transportation-related, and humanitarian relocation services to implement a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens.’’

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Details of agreement with Vertol

The document, labeled “memorandum for record” under the company’s letterhead, states that the company would provide “services to (the Department of Transportation), on an ongoing, month-to-month basis, in the form of separate relocation projects.”

The Vertol agreement indicates that the first one was to “involve the facilitation of the relocation of up to fifty (50) individuals to the State of Massachusetts or other, proximate northeastern state designated by (the Florida Department of Transportation) based upon the extant conditions. The total price for all Services related to Project 1 is $615,000.00, subject to (the Department of Transportation’s) approval.”

The state agreed to prepay Vertol for the flights, which amounted to about $12,812 per migrant. It made the first payment on Sept. 8, according to state records, and subsequently paid Vertol $950,000 on Sept. 19.

The documents also show the state also received a quote from another company, Palm Beach Gardens-based Gun Girls. The company is contracted to provide inmate transport and extradition services for the Florida Department of Corrections. Its quote indicated it would charge $26,000 to transport five people from Florida to Massachusetts, and services would include a bilingual officer, a travel-size personal hygiene kit, a boxed lunch and snacks.

In an interview with the Herald, Gun Girls President Susan Kushlin said her bid did not at all resemble the program put together by Vertol, which involved finding and recruiting migrants in San Antonio.

Kushlin said the contract she was bidding for was to transport between 5 and 20 “illegal aliens” who had committed “nonviolent crimes” from Florida to Massachusetts, either using ground transportation or commercial flights.

She said her company did not have the resources or expertise to pull off an operation like Vertol’s.

“We transport prisoners by contract. That’s all we do,” Kushlin said. “We don’t do anything like what they did. That’s not our business.”

The documents are likely to raise questions about whether Vertol’s operation was in line with the Florida Department of Transportation’s explicit mission, as authorized by state law. A document labeled “FDOT Program Guidelines Relocation Program” states as its first guideline:

“The Department of Transportation (”Department”) manages a program to relocate out of the State of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States (“Unauthorized Aliens”).”

The guidelines indicate that the state can spend up to $12 million on the program and that the vendor may pay for Spanish-language services, ground transportation, migrant “meals and lodging en route to destination” and must “ensure Unauthorized Alien reaches designated destination within 72 hours of request.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo’s reaction

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a South Florida Democrat, acted as a private citizen and sued the governor, alleging that the program violates state law, in part because the migrants were not being relocated from Florida. The budget language allocating $12 million to establish the program stated that it was to be used for “the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”

Related: DeSantis violated law with Martha's Vineyard flights, Democrats say

Pizzo said Friday that the documents buttress the claims made in his lawsuit.

“A fifth grader could understand that they’re plainly violating the law,” he said, after reviewing the documents obtained by the Times/Herald. “It’s very clear that they are supposed to be relocating ‘unauthorized aliens’ from the state of Florida.”

He noted that the records show four Department of Transportation employees signed off on the $615,000 expenditure for the Martha’s Vineyard flights, including a legal review.

“This is all about politics,” Pizzo said. “DeSantis went ahead and made a statement that appeals to his base and they got very, very sloppy on the details.”

More records are still being sought

The letter Montgomerie signed indicates that Vertol would be paid for “aircraft, crew, maintenance logistics, fuel, coordination and planning, route preparation, route services, landing fees, ground handling and logistics and other Project-related expenses.”

The company also agreed to comply with the state’s public records laws and produce any records as required by contractors providing services to the state. But the company has not responded to repeated requests for comment by the Miami Herald and other entities, and neither the Florida Department of Transportation nor the governor’s office has produced the contract.

“FDOT is playing fast and loose with the public’s right to know,’’ said Michael Barfield, director of public access for the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability, which first obtained the records on Friday along with the Times/Herald. “This production is incomplete, and the agency has had plenty of time to comply. We will now seek judicial enforcement of the Public Records Act.”

A second lawsuit has been filed challenging the program in federal court in Massachusetts. Three anonymous Venezuelan migrants and Alianza Americas, a transnational organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants’ rights, allege that DeSantis, the Florida Department of Transportation and others tricked migrants into leaving Texas by offering them McDonald’s gift cards and other items to boarded the flights, and by promising them assistance and employment. The lawsuit names five other people as defendants, including a man and woman believed by attorneys to have recruited migrants in San Antonio to board the planes.

DeSantis has denied that the people sent to Martha’s Vineyard had been tricked. The private contractor hired by the state to carry out the program told them where they were going, he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.