Judge orders DeSantis to comply with law on release of migrant records

The judge gave the administration 20 days to provide records related to flights from Texas to Massachusetts, including phone or text logs.
Edgartown Chief of Police Bruce R. McNamee helps Venezuelan migrants onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha's Vineyard.
Edgartown Chief of Police Bruce R. McNamee helps Venezuelan migrants onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha's Vineyard. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Oct. 26, 2022|Updated Oct. 26, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge ruled Tuesday that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration did not comply with the state’s public records law after an open-government group sought records about a controversial decision to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Judge J. Lee Marsh gave the administration 20 days to provide records sought by the Florida Center for Government Accountability. Marsh pointed, at least in part, to requested phone or text logs that could provide information about communications by DeSantis Chief of Staff James Uthmeier about the flights.

Marsh said the governor’s office did not show “any steps, direct steps taken to gather what this court finds are public records” related to state business conducted on personal devices.

Michael Barfield, director of public access for the center, said Marsh’s verbal ruling held the governor accountable for delays in providing public records.

“The public’s right of access was vindicated,” Barfield said. “The governor is not immune from being held accountable.”

Before the ruling, Andrew King, an attorney for DeSantis, argued the administration was working to fulfill numerous records requests stemming from the migrant flights. He accused the center of “weaponizing” the public records law to get ahead of other people or organizations seeking records.

“We’re diligently working to provide all of these Martha’s Vineyard records to all of the people who have asked,” King said.

Related: Open-government group sues DeSantis over migrant flight records

But Marsh pushed back against the “weaponizing” argument.

“They’re just using the statute the Legislature passed,” Marsh said.

Andrea Flynn Mogensen, an attorney for the center, said the administration’s arguments about a backlog of requests is evidence of delay that violates the public records law.

“We’re being told, you’re in line, get in line and stay in line,” she said.

The center filed the lawsuit Oct. 10 and alleged that the governor’s office did not comply with requests made Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 after about 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, were flown from Texas to Massachusetts.

Part of the controversy centers on the DeSantis administration using Florida money to finance the two Sept. 14 flights, which started in San Antonio, Texas, stopped at an airport in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview and ended up in Martha’s Vineyard. The DeSantis administration tapped into $12 million that the Legislature provided to transport undocumented immigrants from Florida.

Related: Perla and the behind-the-scenes efforts of DeSantis’ migrant flights

DeSantis, who is widely considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, regularly criticizes the Biden administration on border policy and the handling of immigrants lacking permanent legal status. He also has been critical of so-called “sanctuary” communities, such as Martha’s Vineyard.

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In addition to seeking phone or text logs from Uthmeier, the center sought records about such things as any communications with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office about relocating migrants. The DeSantis administration released some records, but the center said in the lawsuit that the release was not “responsive” to the requests.

King said during Tuesday’s hearing that the administration had a Dec. 1 “target date” to provide the requested records, but Mogensen called that “unreasonable.” The center also sought a shorter time frame than the 20 days that Marsh gave the administration.

Nicholas Meros, another DeSantis attorney, made a series of statements in court after Marsh’s ruling that could set the stage for an appeal. Mogensen indicated after the hearing that she expects an appeal.

The center also has filed a separate public records lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation and Vertol Systems Company Inc., which received a state contract to transport migrants. That lawsuit remains pending.

Also, Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, has filed a lawsuit in Leon County circuit court, alleging the DeSantis administration violated the state Constitution and a separate law in its handling of the migrant flights.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing some asylum seekers flown to Massachusetts filed a potential class-action lawsuit in federal court against DeSantis, Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and people who helped recruit the immigrants in Texas.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

News Service videographer Mike Exline contributed to this report.