Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has so far paid more than $1.5 million to a politically connected contractor for a program to fly migrants from Texas to northeastern states — but the private jets chartered by the contractor cost only a fraction of that sum.
Newly released public records show the contractor, Destin, Florida-based Vertol Systems Company, was quoted a price of roughly $153,000 for two charter plane trips from San Antonio, Texas, to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.
That leaves about $1.4 million in Florida taxpayer funds unaccounted for.
DeSantis, who is mulling a bid for president after his overwhelming reelection as governor, attracted national attention with the September migrant flights, saying he was highlighting the crisis at the southern border. But the controversial program has so far generated a local criminal investigation, a federal inquiry and several lawsuits, including one from migrants who say they were tricked into boarding the flights with false promises of jobs and aid at the flights’ destination.
The quote for the Martha’s Vineyard charter flights priced out to roughly $2,550 per passenger. It’s not clear how much Vertol was ultimately billed.
In addition to the planes themselves, Vertol had to pay for motel rooms for the 49 South American migrants recruited for the Sept. 14 Martha’s Vineyard flights, as well as meals, duffel bags and other travel supplies, Visa cash cards for incidental expenses as migrants waited for flights to fill up, and charter buses back and forth from the airports. Other costs would have included the salaries and expenses of the recruiters Vertol hired to find migrants in San Antonio, including the woman who ran the operation, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent named Perla Huerta.
Florida has also apparently paid Vertol for flights that have yet to happen. In proposals to the state, Vertol said it could transport more migrants to Delaware — the state President Joe Biden used to represent in the Senate — as well as Illinois, both Democratic Party strongholds. The Florida Department of Transportation paid $950,000, out of the total $1.565 million, for those flights.
Vertol canceled the Delaware flight at the last minute, despite having recruited several dozen asylum-seekers, putting them up in motels and paying their expenses. There is no indication the flight to Illinois was ever scheduled.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to questions from the Miami Herald about how the state’s money is being spent. Neither did FDOT or Vertol.
Vertol has connections at the top of the DeSantis administration. The high-ranking DeSantis official who supervised the migrant flight program, public-safety czar Larry Keefe, handled Vertol’s legal work for years. He also served as President Donald Trump’s U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida.
Records show that Keefe traveled to San Antonio with Vertol’s CEO, James Montgomerie, as well as Huerta, to organize the flights.
The quote for the Martha’s Vineyard charter flights came from an Ohio-based company called Ultimate JetCharters, which has not responded to requests for comment.
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Michael Barfield, director of access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, questioned the oversight and costs of the migrant flight program.
“They had some hotel rooms, some McDonald’s gift certificates that they handed out like candy, whatever they paid Perla and the others. How much could that add up to?” said Barfield, whose organization has sued the state to obtain records about the migrant flights. “You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of fees that … they’ve pocketed without providing any services. This is taxpayer money.”
On. Oct. 9, the Herald requested records showing a detailed breakdown of Vertol’s spending. The request remains unfulfilled.
The state has budgeted a total of $12 million for its migrant relocation program.
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.