Florida official unsure if Vertol will still handle migrant relocation program

The head of the Division of Emergency Management also said there’ll be no more no-bid deals for the program.
Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, speaks at a news conference in Largo as Florida awaits Hurricane Ian’s arrival on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.
Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, speaks at a news conference in Largo as Florida awaits Hurricane Ian’s arrival on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Feb. 22|Updated Feb. 22

TALLAHASSEE — The head of the state agency now tasked with handling Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant relocation program told a Senate committee on Tuesday that he was not sure whether he will continue the state’s arrangement with Vertol Systems Co., the politically connected aviation company paid to transport migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

“The answer to that question is, I don’t know,” said Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie when asked if he would continue to use Vertol, the company hand-picked by the governor’s public safety czar. Florida legislators met in special session this month and transferred management of the migrant relocation program from the Florida Department of Transportation to the Division of Emergency Management Services, which Guthrie heads.

Related: Florida Legislature OKs expanded migrant relocation program

Records show that Vertol, a Destin-based company, was paid $615,000 by the DeSantis administration to fly migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and paid another $950,000 for “projects 2 and 3″ that have yet to be completed.

“Are you going to use the same contractor?” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, asked Guthrie on Tuesday. Pizzo, in his private capacity, not as a state senator, is suing the governor for violating the law passed last year that requires migrants be relocated only from Florida, not from other states.

“What I need to find out is if I do cancel a contract and go with someone else, am I going to face a tortious interference lawsuit from that?” Guthrie continued, referring to the legal term when someone improperly causes a breach of contract between two parties. “Or, can I go ahead and competitively procure somebody else to do that? Those are all questions I cannot answer today.”

Lawmakers last year included $12 million in the budget for the Florida Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The covert project began with the flight of 49 mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Massachusetts on Sept. 14, but after the program generated a criminal investigation in Texas, a federal inquiry and several lawsuits alleging the flights violated state and federal law, additional flights were postponed.

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

Florida legislators met in special session this month to repeal the law and replace it with a measure to allow the governor to move migrants anywhere else in the United States, with the goal of bringing them to“sanctuary cities in blue states. Vertol had proposed to fly migrants to Illinois and Delaware in September and October before the project was postponed, records show. Lawmakers said they now hope the lawsuits will be dismissed and the flights will continue.

“What I need to do now is I need to meet with the Florida Department of Transportation and find out what have they done and what are they doing currently,” Guthrie told the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee. “And then I need to digest that and then see how we move forward.”

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No-bid contract for Vertol Systems Co.

According to documents obtained by the Miami Herald, Vertol had an advantage in obtaining the no-bid contract with the Florida Department of Transportation. Vertol CEO James Montgomerie was the former legal client of Larry Keefe, the governor’s public safety czar, and it was Keefe who helped to coordinate the Martha’s Vineyard flights and wrote some of the language used in the company’s successful proposal.

The Vertol flights drew national and international attention, and neither Vertol, the governor’s office nor the Florida Department of Transportation would answer questions or release documents until a coalition of news organizations hired public records lawyers, and the Florida Center for Government Accountability filed a lawsuit.

Related: DeSantis aide used private email in talks with ex-client over migrant flights contract

The department released documents on Feb. 10 that said that multiple entries for $950,000 on a state contracting website reflected extensions in the agreement for Vertol to complete its services.

The documents included a Jan. 27 email to the transportation department from Montgomerie, who said he would extend his commitment to what he called the “Humanitarian Services Proposal” to March 15.

In addition to transferring the program from the Florida Department of Transportation to the Division of Emergency Management, lawmakers also exempted the program from the routine competitive bidding process, drawing criticism from Democrats who said that with no guardrails there would be no way to ensure the DeSantis administration was abiding by certain rules.

No no-bid contracts, Guthrie says

But Guthrie said going forward he will not allow the awarding of no-bid projects. He provided a similar response last week when asked by Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who sits on the Senate committee that oversees the transportation budget.

“I pride myself on having not one article in the Tampa Bay Times or Miami Herald about our lack of competitive bids,” he said. “We bid everything out, even if it’s only 24 hours. ... We will make sure everyone knows what we are doing.”

Guthrie said he has little information from the Florida Department of Transportation about to how to proceed with the governor’s priority project, but his solution to avoid negative attention is “easy.”

“To stay out of the paper, do a 24-hour bid, get back your quotes and award based on that,’’ he said. “That’s what we did through all of Hurricane Ian, all of Hurricane Nicole and even through Surfside.”

Guthrie said he was not aware of the Jan. 27 email from Montgomerie extending the terms of the contract or that the Florida Department of Financial Services had approved the Florida Department of Transportation’s request to waive state rules and pay Vertol in advance before it completed the services.

“All of those stats you just gave me I don’t even know about,” he said in an interview. “I haven’t even had an opportunity to be briefed on those myself.”

In addition to transferring the program and waiving state rules for a competitive bid, the new law also includes language to make sure that “all payments made pursuant to (the original law) are deemed approved.”

“We cannot afford to waste any time to go through the rule-making process and have that dragged out when the need is today,” said Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, the sponsor of the measure during the special session.

In his lawsuit, Pizzo alleges that the governor ignored the legislative provision in the 2022-23 budget that allowed him to relocate migrants only if they were from Florida.

The governor’s office filed a motion late Friday in Leon County circuit court arguing that the case is now moot because the new law repealed the part of the budget that was used as a basis for the flights.

A hearing is scheduled before Circuit Judge John Cooper on Wednesday.

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