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Florida legislators dodge chance to get answers on migrant flights, ask no questions

The committee scheduled one hour for Jared Perdue. After 10 minutes of introductions, Perdue spent 40 minutes providing an overview of agency operations.
Two charter flights from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, carried 48 Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Two charter flights from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, carried 48 Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard, Mass. [ CARL JUSTE | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 19|Updated Jan. 19

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue has some questions to answer about his agency’s handling of the covert operation Florida taxpayers financed to relocate migrants from the southern border in Texas, but the Senate committee charged with overseeing his budget ran out of time Wednesday.

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

“We wanted a broad overview of everything about FDOT because they get all our money, almost all of it,’’ said Sen. Ed Hooper, a Palm Harbor Republican who chairs the 12-member Senate Appropriations Committee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, which oversees the state transportation budget. “And I assumed that there will be another time to have a longer meeting and to talk about other issues.”

The committee scheduled one hour to hear from Perdue, who was appointed secretary last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis and is responsible for $12.6 billion in transportation spending. The budget includes $12 million in “migrant relocation” funds added by lawmakers last spring at the governor’s request.

Related: Records show further Florida payments to company involved in migrant flights

The Senate committee spent 10 minutes on introductions, and Perdue spoke for 40 minutes, providing an overview of his agency’s operation. Hooper said Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat, had “a bunch of questions” but announced: “There will not be a bunch today.”

Hooper then fielded four questions from senators, none of which related to the migrant flights. Polsky said after the meeting she had several questions about the flights and will ask Hooper to bring Perdue back in the near future to answer them.

Did payments for flights violate legislators’ intent?

Florida legislators have budget oversight authority, but after the controversial flights captivated national attention and became a badge of honor for DeSantis as he positions himself to run for president in 2024, Republican legislative leaders have avoided asking questions about them.

The central question involves whether the project violated legislators’ intent when they budgeted $12 million to remove migrants from the state. Lawmakers included language that requires that the money be spent on transporting “unauthorized aliens from this state” to other parts of the country.

Related: Judge refuses DeSantis administration’s request to toss migrant flights lawsuit

Immigration advocates say the $1.56 million the state paid to Vertol Systems Company Inc. was to fly 49 mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers not from Florida but from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island. The advocates say they were not immigrants living in the country illegally.

While DeSantis has defended the flights, his administration has provided few details. Most of the information that has emerged has been released in piecemeal fashion by the governor’s office or FDOT as a result of lawsuits from the independent, nonpartisan Florida Center for Government Accountability and public records requests made by a coalition of news organizations, including the Miami Herald.

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When a reporter asked Perdue after the meeting Wednesday to answer how much of the money has been spent from the $12 million allocation, his chief of staff, Leda Kelly, interrupted and told the reporter to direct questions to the FDOT communications staff. The communications staff did not respond to a list of questions.

News organizations have not been the only ones seeking answers about the opaque migrant relocation program. A Sept. 16 letter from Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book asked Perdue to provide details about the program as required in the state law that authorized the spending.

Polsky said Wednesday that Book has yet to receive a reply.

Since President Joe Biden was elected, DeSantis has attempted to raise his profile as a critic of the federal government’s handling of the growing migrant crisis on both the southern border of the U.S. and the maritime migration reaching Florida’s shores.

Some unanswered questions include:

▪ How much of the $12 million allocation of the migrant relocation program has been spent to date? What were the specific projects?

▪ Why did FDOT seek a waiver to pay Vertol in advance of performing its services relating to the migrant flights?

▪ In addition to the flight to Martha’s Vineyard in September, Vertol was paid for a second flight, reportedly to Delaware, the following week. Was that flight ever completed? If not, what is the plan to be reimbursed for the services that were not received by the state?

▪ Documents show that the governor’s office planned to use its migrant relocation program to ship migrants from Texas to Illinois. Was that project canceled?

▪ The state contracts website shows four purchase orders to Vertol. What is the explanation for those, particularly three purchase orders, each for $950,000?

▪ Vertol was the former legal client of Larry Keefe, the governor’s “public safety czar,” who ran a Destin law firm before his career in government. Documents released in December as a result of the Florida Center for Government Accountability lawsuit show Keefe used a private email address with the alias “Clarice Starling” — a reference to the Hannibal Lecter serial killer novels — to help Vertol win the contract. What role did Keefe play in FDOT’s decision to hire Vertol for the project?

▪ Did the state have to stop for 30 minutes in the Panhandle town of Crestview, near Keefe’s home, to show that before the state could say it relocated migrants out of Florida, it had to fly them in?

▪ What other projects are in the pipeline for the remaining $12 million in the migrant relocation program?

▪ Has the state provided financial assistance to Texas for its migrant busing relocation services?