DeSantis used taxpayer money to fly migrants to Florida, then fly them out

Documents show a purchasing officer with the Florida Department of Transportation had questions.
A Venezuelan migrant waves to a crowd before leaving St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Sept. 16 in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard. A group of 48 migrants was flown to the island from Texas.
A Venezuelan migrant waves to a crowd before leaving St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Sept. 16 in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard. A group of 48 migrants was flown to the island from Texas. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Nov. 2, 2022|Updated Nov. 6, 2022

Documents released this week by the aviation company that helped manage Florida’s $12 million migrant relocation program shed new light on behind-the-scenes dealings as the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, working with the politically connected vendor, wriggled around a requirement that Florida use the money to export Florida migrants — not those living in some other state.

The records obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability show, among other revelations, that the president of Destin-based Vertol Systems Company Inc. was not only on the plane when his company flew migrants out of Texas to Massachusetts on Sept. 14, but he and the governor’s “public safety czar,” Larry Keefe, were intimately involved in the plan to justify using Florida funds for the Texas covert op.

Related: Top DeSantis aides were deeply involved in migrant flights

The flights carrying migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard made a 30-minute pit stop in the Panhandle town of Crestview. It was a convenient spot for Keefe, a former U.S. attorney and his former client in private practice, Vertol president James Montgomerie, who would be dropped off in the vicinity of their homes.

But it also served another purpose: To allow the Venezuelan and Peruvian migrants picked up in Texas to be treated as if they were Florida-based migrants and thus eligible to be airlifted out under the secretive program.

The fact that Vertol first brought the migrants into Florida — at taxpayer expense — before flying them out is potentially significant because companies involved in importing “unauthorized aliens” into Florida are barred from doing business with the state.

“Unauthorized aliens” is a vague term. The migrants, mostly adult men and women but with a handful of young children, had applied for asylum upon entering the country, allowing them authorized status while their cases are under review.

The flight records are the first evidence to show that Montgomerie was on the corporate jet with the migrants, as well as Keefe, who commanded the effort, according to records. Their presence in San Antonio is noteworthy because the sheriff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, is conducting a criminal investigation into whether the migrants were illegally lured onto private jets with false promises that jobs, housing and other benefits awaited them at their destination.

Related: Texas sheriff investigating Florida's migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard

Sheriff Javier Salazar has said only those who were on the ground in San Antonio are potential targets of his probe. He has not named any targets but has said he has found “persons of interest.”

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The governor has defended the flights, which have been denounced by his detractors as a political stunt to boost his stature in advance of an anticipated run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He has said they put a spotlight on a border crisis that he claims has been ignored by President Joe Biden and has a direct impact on Florida.

Keefe and Montgomerie have each refused requests for comment.

‘More questions’

The documents also reveal one other previously unreported detail about the scope and scale of the project.

Escorting the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard was Vertol employee Candice Wahowski, and three other individuals: Michael Basaldu, Eliana Nanclares and Edgar Torres.

After they dropped off the migrants at the Vineyard Haven airport, Wahowski and the three others rode on to Atlantic City, according to manifests produced by Vertol. No other information on them is provided.

Did state officials know the secretly conceived project, involving multiple trips to San Antonio by Keefe and others, may not have strictly adhered to the rules governing the $12 million fund? The documents show that the Florida Department of Transportation purchasing officer had questions and concerns.

Vertol demanded that Florida pay for flights in advance. Initially resistant, state government officials ultimately agreed.

In the end, Florida taxpayers prepaid for at least one migrant flight that never took place. That flight, destined for Delaware, near President Biden’s summer home, was scrubbed at the last minute when the Miami Herald and other news outlets began to dig into the program and reveal legally questionable elements of its execution and the sheriff announced his investigation.

Related: Despite rumors, flight heads to Nashville — not Biden’s home

While the flight details provide a window into the project, the latest documents raise “more questions than answers,’’ said Michael Barfield, director of public access of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog that obtained the Vertol records after filing a lawsuit.

“Clearly additional records exist that haven’t been turned over, and we don’t understand why it would take more than 40 days to turn over the limited numbers of records that we’ve received.”

The organization has filed lawsuits against the Florida Department of Transportation, the governor’s office and Vertol for failure to release public records relating to the flights. The Miami Herald and other news organizations have sought similar documents through public records requests.

Vertol has so far been paid $1.56 million for the migrant relocation program and has completed only one of three flights it initially agreed to. As a result, the cost per migrant transported so far works out to about $32,000 per person, a number that includes hotel stays, ground transportation in Texas and other costs.

Justifying mission

The documents show that the price of the project not only grew, but that state officials knew there were rules that had to be carefully navigated.

Cryptic language used by state procurement officials suggests they were aware that migrants might have to be flown into Florida so they could then qualify as Florida migrants eligible to be shipped out.

In a Sept. 2 email supplied by Vertol — and not previously produced by the state — FDOT purchasing agent Paul Baker wrote to Montgomerie: “As a follow-up to your initial response to FDOT’s Request for Quotes (RFQ) for transportation and related services to implement a program to facilitate the transport of ‘Unauthorized Aliens’ from Florida consistent with federal and state law, could you please provide a more detailed proposal for air transportation options…”

Baker then emphasized: “Because the flights from Florida may include passengers originating from in or out of Florida, any pricing information should include, in addition to air transportation from Florida, any air or ground transportation and related services necessary to facilitate such transportation from Florida.”

Legislators this year set aside $12 million to remove “unauthorized aliens” from the state of Florida — not asylum-seekers living in other states like Texas.

Related: Florida migrant flights may have violated law, new documents show

Montgomerie responded to Baker with a two-page proposal for “the relocation of individuals to the State of Massachusetts or other, proximate northeastern state designated by FDOT. He said the updated cost was no longer $485,000 but would be between $445,000 and $525,000.

“Please contact me directly if you have further questions or concerns,” he wrote.

Montgomerie did not provide any breakdown for the cost of ground transportation in Florida. It wasn’t needed. The migrants on the flights told the Herald that while they landed in Crestview they never set foot in the state.

Baker next asked Vertol to modify its agreement with the state because the state would not agree to pay in advance for the flights.

“Please remove the following language — we cannot pay before the services are rendered,” Baker responded.

Montgomerie replied minutes later: “Like most air-carriers, we don’t normally offer credit. The costs of the operation are simply too high,” he said.

With no explanation, Baker then reversed course and sought fast-track approval for advance payment from Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis at a higher cost than even Vertol had estimated.

On Sept. 9, Vertol was paid $615,000 for two Sept. 14 flights destined for Martha’s Vineyard, and on Sept. 19, the company received another $950,000 for the Delaware flight that was abruptly aborted that same day.

FDOT spokesperson Michael D. Williams would not offer an explanation Tuesday for Baker’s change of heart, except to say: “Advance payments for contracted services are allowable under Florida law.”

Rising costs

By Sept. 15, a day after the Martha’s Vineyard excursions, Vertol was offering up a new proposal, the documents show. The cost of the operation continued to increase.

Montgomerie emailed Baker, saying the “proposed Humanitarian Services” mission would involve Project 2 — “the relocation of up to fifty (50) individuals to the State of Delaware or other, proximate northeastern state designated by FDOT” and Project 3 — “the relocation of up to fifty (50) individuals to the State of Illinois or other, proximate northeastern state designated by FDOT.” The total cost to Florida taxpayers: $950,000, or about $6,300 per migrant, which includes the cost of hotel rooms, meals and ground transportation in Texas.

Those flights never happened.

Williams also would not answer why the state has not asked Vertol to return some or all of the $950,000 in payment for the aborted flights to Delaware and Illinois. He would not answer how the state arrived at the per-person cost of the flights, saying it could relate to pending litigation.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who has sued the state in his private capacity, is asking the court to halt the migrant flights for violating the statute authorizing the $12 million for transporting “unauthorized aliens” from Florida.

Legal challenges

DeSantis is facing several legal challenges related to the flight, which may be snagging the effort.

In addition to the lawsuit seeking records and Pizzo’s lawsuit asking a court to halt the project, a class-action federal lawsuit is pending in Massachusetts from migrants on the Martha’s Vineyard flights, who claim DeSantis violated their civil rights.

Related: DeSantis, Florida sued by 3 migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard

The Vertol documents also show that the lawsuits may have led the state to quietly revise how it handles future flights.

On Oct. 8, after the lawsuits in Massachusetts and Florida were filed, Montgomerie signed a state-created form that attests that Vertol Systems Company Inc. will not transport “a person into this state knowing that the person is an Unauthorized Alien, except to facilitate the detention, removal, or departure of the person from this state or the United States.”

The state appears to have created the form after Pizzo’s lawsuit pointed out that the policy appears to violate a state law passed last year that prohibits Florida from entering into a contract “with a common carrier or contracted carrier if the carrier is willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting a person in the State of Florida knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien.”

The state law defines “‘unauthorized alien’ as a person who is unlawfully present in the United States according to the terms of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.” But, according to the documentation given to the Venezuelan migrants from Homeland Security, and included in the documents supplied by Vertol, the Venezuelan migrants were authorized to be in the country as asylum-seekers.

Pizzo said he believes the lack of clarity and transparency is more evidence the state was skirting its own law.

“FDOT does not have the authority to waive a state statute in favor of a vendor,” he said, adding only the governor in an emergency situation can waive a requirement like that.

“You can’t say, send me a proposal to remove unauthorized aliens, and then say, sign a form that says I won’t bring unauthorized aliens into the state of Florida.”

Pizzo disputes the argument that the state is authorized to transport migrants if it is “for detention, departure or removal” of an immigrant who lacks permanent legal status.

“Each of those terms carry legal meaning in federal immigration law but the state has no independent authority to enforce it,” he said. “These words are all taken from federal statutes. They all have definitions of what they mean. And none of them include the authority of a state — unless and in concert with mutual aid with the federal government. You can play cops and robbers, but you can’t play federal law enforcement here.”

Williams would not describe the procedure Vertol used to determine that the individuals were “unauthorized aliens.”

Missing documents

Also absent from the documents is any correspondence or contract with Ultimate JetCharters, the Ohio-based private jet firm that flew the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, which Vertol is obligated to provide under its contract with the state.

The state has until Monday to respond in the Pizzo case. A Nov. 14 hearing has been scheduled, with trial set for Nov. 21.

The Center for Government Accountability has also asked for all text messages between Vertol and Keefe and any other DeSantis administration officials, and any phone logs related to the project. The company’s lawyer, Aaron McCurdy, said it would have to charge $7,500 for the records because Vertol would need to hire an outside vendor to redact sensitive information.

The government accountability center is challenging the fee, Barfield said. He notes that Montgomerie signed a contract with the state that said Vertol would “transfer, at no cost, to the public agency all public records in possession of the contractor or keep and maintain public records required by the public agency to perform the service.”

Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh last week ordered the governor’s office to turn over its text messages and phone logs by Nov. 14. On Monday, the state appealed the order.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of the story provided inaccurate information about a transaction fee related to the contract with Vertol.

Miami Herald journalists Nicholas Nehamas, Ana Claudia Chacin, Michael Wilner and Sarah Blaskey and Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.