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Florida still paying company that hired migrants who lacked legal documents

That includes a migrant who has been charged in connection with the death of a Pinellas County deputy.
 
Investigators with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office remain at the scene on the westbound lanes of I-275 near Gandy Boulevard on Friday, Sep 23, 2022, in St. Petersburg, where Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, was hit and killed overnight Thursday by a construction worker operating a front end loader at a construction site with a fork lift, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Investigators with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office remain at the scene on the westbound lanes of I-275 near Gandy Boulevard on Friday, Sep 23, 2022, in St. Petersburg, where Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, was hit and killed overnight Thursday by a construction worker operating a front end loader at a construction site with a fork lift, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 27, 2022|Updated Nov. 14, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has paid more than $8 million to a construction contractor since authorities found it had hired several workers living in the country illegally — including two men who have been charged in connection with the death of a Pinellas County deputy.

The state contractor, Archer Western-De Moya Joint Venture, has a standing contract with the Florida Department of Transportation to do work on the Gateway Expressway in the Tampa Bay area. Records show the payments, which are part of a multiyear half-billion-dollar contract, have not stopped since the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office announced the findings.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference in September that the contractor had hired “a bunch” of migrants not able to legally work in the U.S. and that it would be up to the state and the federal government to address the issue with the company.

The investigation into the death of Deputy Michael Hartwick remains ongoing, with the Department of Transportation and its contractor both saying they are cooperating with law enforcement.

Related: Pinellas deputy killed in hit-and-run, suspect taken into custody after search

“The company is cooperating fully with law enforcement without reprimand,” Peter Glimco, a spokesperson with Archer Western-De Moya Joint Venture, said in a response to questions on Thursday.

In a statement to the Times/Herald, the state agency defended the contractor.

“The Florida Department of Transportation and its contractors follow strict hiring procedures including all federal and state laws. This is true here,” the statement read.

The state agency also said the vendor complied with an immigration law DeSantis championed in 2020 that sought to crack down on unauthorized labor in the state. That law requires all public employers and their contractors to register with and use the federal E-Verify system, run by the Department of Homeland Security, to confirm that all new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States.

“Compliant hiring procedures were followed including a federal E-Verify clearance check and the individual in question passed this federal clearance. The Department continues to support law enforcement efforts and investigations related to this case,” the state agency told the Times/Herald.

Glimco said that state and federal hiring guidelines were followed and that both individuals arrested were “processed and authorized for employment through the federal E-Verify system.”

“The company continues to follow federal and state employment guidelines and in no way attempted to circumvent the law to hire unauthorized individuals,” he said. “We are continuing to investigate the events that led to the company being defrauded in the hiring of these individuals.”

The Department of Homeland Security, the agency that runs the E-Verify system, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Employers who use the government’s E-Verify electronic system are able to check documents provided by new hires against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security records. A mismatch with the records would suggest a person is not authorized to work in the country.

The system has improved in accuracy over the years by allowing employers to match a photo in the E-Verify system with a document presented by a new employee.

Errors can still occur due to imperfect data on the federal database. Some groups have challenged requirements to use E-Verify due to the database containing errors, which they argued could even cost legal workers their jobs. According to a 2013 survey, though, 92% of E-Verify users thought the tool was effective and accurate.

Related: Funeral honors life of Pinellas deputy killed in the line of duty

DeSantis brings light to the case

DeSantis has drawn attention to the criminal case to amplify his hard-line stance on immigration, a top-tier issue for him as he seeks reelection on Nov. 8 and flirts with a potential run for the White House in 2024.

“We just had a sheriff’s deputy from Pinellas County killed by a twice-deported illegal alien who came across the border illegally six months ago. I didn’t hear any of the outrage about that,” DeSantis said during the first and only gubernatorial debate when his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, criticized the governor’s migrant relocation plan.

DeSantis did not mention the state continues to do business with the contractor that employed the suspect.

The De Moya Group, which is listed as a partner in the contract, contributed $32,500 to DeSantis’ political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, during the 2022 election cycle, according to campaign finance records.

It is not the first time that the governor’s office and the Department of Transportation have come under scrutiny because migrants unable to legally work in the U.S. were hired to do work on behalf of the state.

The Miami Herald reported last week that a Venezuelan migrant unable to legally work in the United States was paid to coordinate DeSantis’ migrant flight program, putting the Republican governor’s high-profile political gambit in conflict with his long-standing push to crack down on migrant workers who lack proper legal documents.

Related: A migrant unable to work legally in the US helped coordinate DeSantis’ migrant flights

‘It was all bogus’

At a news conference last month, Gualtieri said Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, was among those hired by the state contractor.

“This guy entered the country illegally on Oct. 25 of 2021 in Eagle Pass, Texas. He was turned around by the border patrol and sent back to Mexico. There is no record of him ever legally coming back into the United States, and he is here illegally,” Gualtieri said. “He has been here in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year.”

Molina-Salles was driving a large front loader with fork lifts, the type used to move concrete barriers, when he hit Hartwick and killed him instantly, Gualtieri said.

The 32-year-old kept driving before running away from the scene. He gave his construction helmet and vest to a co-worker, also a worker in the country illegally, who hid Molina-Salles’ things in a wooded area.

Molina-Salles hid from law enforcement and sparked a nine-hour manhunt. He was eventually found with the help of bloodhounds that sniffed his discarded items and used that scent to find him hiding behind some brush, Gualtieri said. He was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death. His co-worker was also taken into custody, charged with being an accessory after the fact.

Gualtieri questioned the hiring practices of the contractors after the investigation found several workers on the job who were in the U.S. without legal authorization. In particular, he questioned why the contractor would allow someone with a fake ID and no driver’s license to operate machinery.

“It was all bogus. And they accept that and they allow this guy to get behind the wheel? Really?” Gualtieri said in September.

Glimco, the spokesperson for Archer Western-de Moya Joint Venture, said the construction equipment Molina-Salles was operating does not require a driver’s license under Florida law.

‘He shouldn’t have died this way’

The sheriff was also upset at how the investigation was slowed because so many workers in the country without authorization were hesitant to give law enforcement their real names.

“They are all out there lying and giving us fake names, fake IDs. A lot of fake IDs out of North Carolina, and it really frustrated this investigation,” Gualtieri said.

Hartwick, a deputy with 19 years of experience, arrived at the scene on the night of Sept. 23 to ensure construction workers along Interstate 275 were safe from traffic.

He parked his cruiser along the highway with his emergency equipment on and was standing on the shoulder of the road when he was hit by the front loader being driven by Molina-Salles.

“He shouldn’t have died this way,” Gualtieri said.

This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of Deputy Michael Hartwick’s name.