Records show further Florida payments to company involved in migrant flights

It’s not clear exactly what the payments are for.
A Venezuelan migrant is led onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass on the island of Marthas Vineyard. Florida flew a group of 48 migrants to the island from Texas.
A Venezuelan migrant is led onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass on the island of Marthas Vineyard. Florida flew a group of 48 migrants to the island from Texas. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Dec. 2, 2022|Updated Dec. 3, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The price tag is rising for Florida’s opaque program to relocate migrants from Texas to Democratic-leaning states.

As Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration continues to withhold details about the program, documents show two additional payments have been made to the vendor, bringing the total spent on the yet-to-be-disclosed activity to $3.4 million.

Two new purchase orders, each for $950,000, were made for payments to Vertol Systems Co. on Oct. 11 and Oct 17, according to the state website that tracks contract payments. Two previous payments were made for $615,000 and $950,000 — on Sept. 8 and Sept. 21 — but the governor’s office has accounted for only a fraction of those payments.

In the line describing what the payments were for, it reads “relocation services.”

Repeated questions from the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times about the purchase orders have been greeted with silence from both the Florida Department of Transportation and the governor’s office.

Despite months of public records requests, and two pending lawsuits from the Florida Center for Government Accountability, the state has produced only one record detailing how the millions paid to Vertol were spent.

An invoice from Ohio-based UltimateJet Charters shows it was paid $153,000 to transport 49 migrants on two charter planes from San Antonio to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. No information has been released on the remaining $3.3 million of state funds apparently paid to Vertol.

Related: Over $1.4 million so far unaccounted for in Florida’s migrant flights program

Documents show the Destin-based aviation company that won the lucrative bid faced superficial competition when the state sought requests for bids in July, but the company had a powerful political connection.

For years, the man the governor hired to handle the migrant relocation program, Larry Keefe, represented Vertol Company Systems as its chief litigator when he still was in private practice in his Destin law firm. After he served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, Keefe was hired by DeSantis to be his “public safety czar.”

The two newest purchase orders appear to show that the state has paid Vertol for organizing flights that have yet to happen.

Related: Florida migrant flight money went to company tied to DeSantis adviser

Where are the public records?

Emails and text messages obtained by the Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times and other news organizations show that the governor’s office had planned to use its migrant relocation program to ship migrants from Texas to the Democratic strongholds of Delaware — the state President Joe Biden used to represent in the U.S. Senate — and Illinois.

If the state has followed through on any of those relocation plans, it is not saying. The DeSantis administration has not only failed to turn over details of how the state money has been spent, it has also not forced its contractor, Vertol Systems Co., to abide by the state law that requires it to turn over records related to the project.

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Documents also show that Vertol was paid in advance of performing its services relating to the migrant flights after the Florida Department of Transportation got permission to waive a department rule.

Vertol CEO James Montgomerie is being sued by the Florida Center for Government Accountability for refusing to turn over documents as required of contractors under Florida’s public records law.

In court testimony on Tuesday before Leon County Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey, Montgomerie testified that he never saw the purchase orders from the state but testified that his company was paid for its services.

When asked by Florida Center for Government Accountability lawyer Andrea Mogensen how much he was paid, Montgomerie replied: “I don’t have the math in front of me, but I think that was part of a records request. ... I think we’ve had two so far.”

Mogensen noted, however, the absence of records required to account for how Vertol was spending taxpayer funds.

“There’s literally no documentation of any scope of services performed,” she told the judge. “The bill was sent without any parameters of the arrangement, without any communications. All those are likely missing records.”

Neither the Florida Department of Transportation nor DeSantis’ office would answer questions about why two other purchase orders were made for the additional $1.9 million.

The quote for the Martha’s Vineyard charter flights priced out to roughly $2,550 per passenger, but Vertol has not disclosed how much it spent on each passenger.

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 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.

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

Text messages and emails that have been released revealed that weeks before the state signed a contract with Vertol, its executives already were in Texas with Florida officials planning the secret mission. The records show that before the state could claim that it was relocating the migrants out of Florida, it had to fly them into the state first.

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

Criminal investigation and lawsuits

The program has generated a criminal investigation in Texas, 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.

This week, the program came under more legal fire.

On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Leontire & Associates P.C., and the Criminal Justice Institute of Harvard Law School filed a federal lawsuit in Miami on behalf of a coalition of immigration organizations alleging that the governor’s migrant relocation program violates federal law.

They argue that the budget item that allows the state to spend $12 million in funds derived from the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state” violates both the supremacy clause and equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The statute “creates an incoherent definition of ‘unauthorized alien’ that is inconsistent with federal immigration laws,” the groups argue. “This ill-defined designation may include people whose presence in the country and Florida is authorized by the federal government, but who now risk harassment for merely wishing to either enter or stay in Florida.”

“The relocation program is nothing more than an expensive political stunt designed to feed Gov. DeSantis’ political ambitions on a diet of xenophobic, state-sponsored harassment,” said Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.

Shalyn Fluharty, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, said the governor’s relocation program requires the Florida Department of Transportation to contract with transportation companies that have neither the authority nor training to relocate migrants.

“The president and Congress have the duty to enforce our immigration laws,” Fluharty said. “The governor’s efforts to create a separate, competing state-run immigration system impedes the federal government’s ability to do its job and undermines our democracy.”

Earlier in the week, plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in Massachusetts amended their complaint against DeSantis to include DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, and Keefe and Huerta.

On Friday, summons were issued for Huerta, Keefe, Montgomerie and Uthmeier to be questioned in that case.