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Top DeSantis aides were deeply involved in migrant flights

Records suggest Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, traveled to Texas to oversee the program.
 
A Venezuelan migrant waves to a crowd before leaving St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Marthas Vineyard.
A Venezuelan migrant waves to a crowd before leaving St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Marthas Vineyard. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Oct. 15, 2022

Top aides to Gov. Ron DeSantis played key roles in planning and executing Florida’s controversial migrant flight program, according to public records released late Friday.

While the program was carried out by a private contractor, the new records show the deep involvement of Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, and James Uthmeier, his chief of staff, in an operation that has led to at least one criminal investigation, a separate U.S. Treasury Department probe and several lawsuits — potentially heightening their exposure to the various inquiries underway.

“Current plan is for event to occur next Wednesday ... Will be more precise about ETA there as event approaches,” Keefe wrote to Uthmeier in a Sept. 8 text message. “No news from me between now and then is good news. Will let you know if otherwise.”

The two men were discussing charter flights paid for with Florida taxpayer money that would bring a group of roughly 50 migrants, mainly Venezuelans, from San Antonio, Texas, to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14.

The records suggest Keefe traveled to Texas to oversee the program. Operatives working for the state recruited migrants in San Antonio, offering them free flights to Martha’s Vineyard and saying jobs and aid would be waiting for them.

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

“I’m back out here,” Keefe wrote in a Sept. 5 text message. “Conditions are quite favorable.”

“Very good,” Uthmeier replied. “You have my full support. Call anytime.”

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday morning. The records were released at 9:23 p.m. Friday, in response to requests from the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a watchdog group that has sued the governor’s office over delays in producing records.

The migrants and their attorneys have blasted the relocation program, alleging in media interviews and a federal civil rights lawsuit that they were tricked into getting on the planes and thought they were going to Boston. No one in Martha’s Vineyard was expecting them, although community members regrouped to provide food, clothes and other support.

But at least one migrant expressed gratitude in screenshotted text messages that Keefe sent to Uthmeier.

“You threw us into a cradle of gold,” the person wrote in Spanish to someone they referred to as “Perla”— likely Perla Huerta, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent whom migrants have identified as the top recruiter for the program in San Antonio. The migrant, whose name is not visible in the records, noted the group was provided food and clothes.

“I’m glad they have taken such good care of you, I knew it would be like that,” Huerta wrote.

She acknowledged that some of the migrants might hate her, but she wrote, “this opportunity nobody else would have given.”

As public safety czar, Keefe’s portfolio includes immigration. Before joining the administration, he worked as an outside lawyer for Vertol Systems Company, the Destin-based company hired by the Florida Department of Transportation to arrange the flights. He also served as the U.S. attorney for Florida’s Northern District, having been appointed by then-President Donald Trump.

Keefe’s presence on the ground in Texas could open him to potential criminal liability. The Democratic sheriff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, has launched a criminal investigation into whether Vertol recruiters broke laws against “unlawful restraint” by deceiving the migrants and then moving them around the country.

Related: Migrants DeSantis had flown to Martha’s Vineyard certified as crime victims

The sheriff, Javier Salazar, said in a statement this week that his Organized Crime Division had identified suspects but that “only those who were physically in our jurisdiction at the time of the offense” could potentially face charges.

Vertol has so far received more than $1.56 million in taxpayer funds, and the relocation program may be continuing, with flights potentially planned for other Democratic states, including Delaware and Illinois, additional records released late Friday indicated. The text messages between Keefe and Uthmeier suggest that the two men had several conference calls with Vertol employees.

While the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard were previously believed to all be from Venezuela, records show that at least two listed their country of origin as Peru.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.