TALLAHASSEE — Weeks before the state signed a contract with a Destin-based aviation company to ship migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Democratic-leaning states at Florida taxpayer expense, executives with the politically connected firm were already in Texas with Florida officials planning the secret mission, text messages released by the governor’s office Monday show.
The records, 87 pages in all, fill in new details on the program, showing how a recruiter scoured San Antonio churches and a bus depot in search of migrants willing to relocate — and how the administration of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott helped in guiding that effort.
The texts are sprinkled with thumbs-up emojis, triple and quadruple exclamation points and talk of a celebratory dinner with wine after a hard week’s work — an indication of how excited Florida officials were about enticing Texas migrants onto flights to drop them off in unprepared cities.
Messages show organizers relishing the prospect of sending migrants to an airport in Delaware near where President Joe Biden has a summer home. That flight was canceled at the last minute.
Some of the communications were sent via Signal, the encrypted messaging app, an unusual procedure for government operations that are supposed to be conducted in the sunshine.
The Florida-sponsored operation is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office, which is looking into whether migrants were illegally enticed with false promises that jobs, housing and other benefits awaited them at their destination.
“Will call you in the morning, great planning session with Perla tonight!!” wrote James Montgomerie, president of Vertol Systems Company Inc., in an Aug. 29 text message to Larry Keefe, the governor’s “public safety czar.” He was referring to Perla Huerta, the former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer who was Vertol’s chief recruiter of migrants for the program.
Two weeks earlier, Huerta and someone identified only as “Kiwi” had been in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, 156 miles from San Antonio, scouting out a general aviation airport and collecting leads on where to find migrants for the Florida-sponsored mission. The location was the site of a July 2021 meeting between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Abbott as the Florida governor announced he would send state law enforcement agents to the border to help round up migrants crossing into the United States illegally.
“We don’t necessarily need a base at the airport,” “Kiwi” wrote Keefe, a onetime U.S. attorney.
“Kiwi” attached photos of an open lot at what appeared to be an airport and wrote: “Something more commercial where we can park pick-up trucks and operate a small office of up to 10 people.”
The governor’s office released Keefe’s messages Monday night in response to a court order in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Center on Government Accountability and records requests by the Miami Herald and other news organizations.
The documents show that Montgomerie arrived in Texas during the week of Aug. 15 — 18 days before the signing of the state contract. Also in town: Keefe and Huerta, all seemingly present for a reconnaissance mission to survey the prospects for conducting the migrant relocation effort.
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Also present were two agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Neither the governor’s office nor the Florida Department of Transportation responded to questions about why the state allowed Vertol to begin coordinating the project before contract terms were worked out. Montgomerie and Vertol were Keefe’s clients in his private law practice before he joined the DeSantis administration. Records indicate the company has been paid $1.56 million to date.
Keefe’s text messages, dotted with military jargon, convey a tone of excitement as Keefe, Montgomerie and Huerta congratulated themselves on executing the covert plan.
“Yahtzee!! We’re full,’’ wrote Huerta on Sept. 12, two days before airlifting Venezuelan and Peruvian migrants from San Antonio to Massachusetts.
She and her team had recruited 48 people who had crossed the Texas border, housed them in a San Antonio hotel, equipped them with duffel bags, toiletries and meal vouchers, and gotten them to agree in writing to go to Massachusetts. They would board two planes destined for the Democratic stronghold of Martha’s Vineyard. The potent bit of political theater was intended to shine a spotlight on DeSantis’ hard-line immigration stance in the midst of his reelection campaign. It was hailed by conservative media and Republican allies.
“Victory Arms For you!!!!” wrote Huerta to Keefe on Sept. 14, after the planes had unloaded their passengers on the befuddled island community, which had no advance notice and was unprepared. “Thank you for this opportunity and support.”
The planes first stopped in Crestview, Florida, where Keefe and Montgomerie disembarked near their North Florida homes. The 30-minute pit stop served another important purpose: It made it possible for the planners to argue that the migrants were Florida-based and thus eligible to be airlifted at taxpayer expense under Florida’s $12 million migrant relocation program.
“Thank you for all, Perla!!!” Keefe responded to Huerta. “Let’s drive on!!!”
Michael Barfield, director of access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said the latest release of records demonstrates “that the Governor’s Office has not complied with the court’s order. Each time we receive a batch of records it shows that more records exist.”
Last month, Vertol suggested to the center that text messages between the company and state officials regarding the flights did not exist but then demanded more than $25,000 to search for those messages.
The records indicate that Keefe used his personal Gmail account to conduct the state-supervised mission, but the records returned include none of those documents. Also missing are hotel receipts, correspondence between Keefe and James Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff, phone logs from personal phones used by the participants and contracts with Ultimate Jet Charters, the company hired by Vertol to fly the migrants.
“We intend to address these deficiencies with counsel for the governor and, if necessary, with the court,” Barfield said.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar has said only those who were on the ground in San Antonio are potential targets of his criminal probe, raising questions about whether Keefe and Montgomerie could also be included in the investigation. Salazar has not named any targets but said he has found “persons of interest.”
The documents released Monday also revealed the following:
- That Keefe and Montgomerie were in touch with Dave Abrams, a spokesperson for the governor’s reelection campaign. It’s not indicated why. On the day of the flights, Keefe sent Abrams’ contact information to Montgomerie.
- How Huerta wasn’t immediately successful at finding migrants eager to be put on planes. “There’s a bus going to Miami that sold out and a few others sold out,” Huerta wrote to Keefe on Aug. 17. She also noted that “churches were empty already” and that she had gone by a “transportation office but (the van) that dropped them off was not there.”
- At one point, Huerta texted a screenshot to Keefe of results from an online search that asks: “What states are immigrants going to?” The state with the highest reported numbers, according to the search, was Florida with “Total net international migration (2018-2019)” of 86,878. “Good find. Very helpful,’’ Keefe responded. There is no distinction in the search between legal and illegal migration.
- On Aug. 19, Keefe sent Huerta a link to a New York Post opinion piece titled: “How selfies fuel rise in illegal migrants.” The story said migrants who make it to the United States and send back “wish you were here” selfies to friends and family entice others to attempt the journey. Huerta responded that such notoriety is considered a “pull factor” and said “maybe we should encourage selfies...” “Copy,” Keefe responded, using military lingo.
- The messages show that Keefe arrived Sept. 11 back in San Antonio, where he then met with Montgomerie, who had been involved in recruiting migrants. “The network has grown exponentially,” Montgomerie texted to Keefe later that day. “We believe we could probably generate another 50 inside 48 hours.”
The messages also show Keefe and Huerta texting with someone named Sam Miller, who shared the contact for Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. A LinkedIn profile for Sam Miller describes him as a Texas Division of Emergency Management field operations official based in San Antonio.
“I hope the brain dump yesterday was helpful,” Miller texted Keefe and Huerta on Aug. 17.
Then, in response to a question from Huerta about where refugees “hang out” in San Antonio, Miller explained that they could be found at the city’s migrant shelter.
The city migrant shelter is where Huerta would end up recruiting refugees for the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, as well as the flight to Delaware that was canceled the morning of its planned departure.
The texts also show that there was not an effort to make sure that the migrants recruited for relocation were “unauthorized aliens,” as is required under the state program that allows DeSantis to spend up to $12 million relocating migrants out of Florida. The migrants were mostly adult men and women but with a handful of young children who became candidates for asylum upon entering the country and presenting themselves to authorities, and thus were considered “authorized aliens” while their cases are under review.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did officials at the Texas Division of Emergency Management or the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Vertol has completed only one of three missions 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.
Florida taxpayers prepaid for the Delaware flight that didn’t happen when the 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.
The records indicate that Montgomerie was enthusiastic about pitching such a plan. After a successful day of recruiting migrants for Martha’s Vineyard, he texted Keefe on Sept. 9:
“Larry, we could certainly do Delaware, Friday or Saturday next week,’’ he wrote. “50 pax (passengers) easy.”