DeSantis set to relaunch migrant flight program with 3 new vendors

The program, which could start as soon as contracts are finalized, will involve an undetermined number of migrants and could last until June 30, 2025.
Migrants, who arrived on a flight sent by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard.
Migrants, who arrived on a flight sent by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. [ RAY EWING/VINEYARD GAZETTE | AP ]
Published May 10

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has selected three companies to carry out its expanded, multi-million dollar program to relocate migrants anywhere in the country, less than a year after the governor sent 49 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

The program, which could start as soon as contracts are finalized, will involve an undetermined number of migrants and could last until June 30, 2025 unless a contract is terminated, state records show. The records don’t indicate when the program will start. DeSantis is expected to launch a campaign for president in the coming weeks.

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management has yet to provide copies of the contracts. But according to “notice of intent to award” records published on Monday, the awards will be given to Vertol Systems Company, which was handpicked by DeSantis’ public safety czar to do the migrant flights last year; ARS Global Emergency Management; and GardaWorld Federal Services, an armored truck company that has been investigated for safety violations. The USA Today Network-Florida was first to report the selection of the vendors on Tuesday.

The selection of the vendors continues the governor’s political strategy of using state resources to call attention to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. Critics called the Martha’s Vineyard flights a political stunt. The governor, after being sued in state and federal court, was forced to halt the program until legislators could revise the state law to give him more authority.

The timing of the new phase of the program comes as the Biden administration faces a surge of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border due to the expiration of a COVID-era policy this week. The Biden administration has agreed to send 1,500 troops to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the southwest border.

DeSantis, who in 2021 sent dozens of state law enforcement officers to help Texas officers at the border, has not publicly said whether he intends to deploy resources to the border again. His office, however, told the Times/Herald on Tuesday to “stay tuned.”

“We will be talking about the border crisis very soon,” his office said in an email.

The relaunch of the program is part of the governor’s executive order declaring a state of emergency in response to the surge in migration along Florida’s coastline in January. The Unauthorized Alien Transport Program, has now “selected multiple vendors based on their capabilities to carry out the program as outlined in statute,’’ said Alecia Collins, spokesperson for the Division of Emergency Management.

Because the contracts have yet to be made available, the state has not said where the migrants are who will be voluntarily transported and to what destination. The state said the companies should be able to provide both air and ground transportation, be able to do “research, identification and planning,” locate, identify, vet, and verify migrants eligible for transport, ensure “informed voluntary consent before relocation,” and handle records and documents related to the program.

In a questions and answers section provided on the state’s contracts web site, one vendor suggested the state was considering flying “migrants from Florida to California, Florida to New York, or Florida to Georgia” and asked about the “drastic cost differences” involved.

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In another question, one vendor estimated it would be able to transport 40 to 50 migrants a week, or approximately 2,200 migrants in a 12-month period. The state answered that the number of individuals who would be transported would be “based on circumstances on the ground.”

The state’s proposal also said vendors would be able to coordinate and arrange social services at the destination.

The state indicated that it does not expect to relocate migrant children. It also said it would not require vendors to fly migrants back to their home countries, such as Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba.

The program’s history

The process is a significant departure from how the governor’s office and Larry Keefe, the governor’s “public safety czar,” handled the secretive flights to Martha’s Vineyard last September. Faced with a lawsuit alleging the state violated the law in its handling of the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, legislators transferred management of the migrant relocation program from the Florida Department of Transportation to the Division of Emergency Management Services in February.

Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Division of Emergency Management Services, told lawmakers he would conduct a transparent operation that would avoid the kind of missteps that attracted media scrutiny with the first operation.

In February, Guthrie’s agency released a timeline for proposals and announced it would look for vendors that could provide an array of services to migrants, including meals, lodging, transportation, security, hygiene products and helping them coordinate social services at their final destination.

“During the term of the contract, the contractor will be responsible for ensuring its employees, agents and subcontractors obey and comply with all relevant local, state, and federal laws,” according to state procurement records.

According to documents obtained by the Miami Herald and other news organizations as a result of public records requests and court proceedings, Keefe gave the no-bid contract with the Florida Department of Transportation to Vertol, whose CEO, James Montgomerie, was his former legal client. Keefe used a private email address with the alias “Clarice Starling” — a reference to the Hannibal Lecter serial killer movies — to help his former client win the contract.

Keefe also was personally involved in coordinating the Martha’s Vineyard flights and wrote some of the language used in Vertol’s successful proposal.

New vendors jump in

The revamped program will include three times as many vendors, with Vertol still among them.

ARS Global Emergency Management describes itself as a “family-owned company focused on providing clients order over chaos in emergencies before they happen.” The company, whose headquarters are in Texas, has offices in Miami. It’s president is Joe Gagliano.

GardaWorld Federal Services, based in Washington, D.C., says on its website that its mission is “focused on delivering best in class security, medical, logistics, and associated support services to U.S. federal, state and local government customs, as well as commercial clients.”

A Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2020 found the company spent so little on maintenance that its armored trucks often “lacked reliable brakes, seat belts or even seats.”

Related: A Tampa Bay Times investigation: Cash driven

“It gave drivers barely any training, pressured them to work at a frantic pace and let some keep driving as they crashed again and again,” the Times reported. “The result has been armored trucks hurtling out of control in communities across America — swerving into traffic, plunging into ditches and smashing into cars.”

The state has yet to say how much it is paying each company.