DeSantis’ chief of staff, public safety czar now named in suit over migrant planes

MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com

Two members of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration are among new defendants named in a class action lawsuit filed against the governor over the plan to fly 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this year.

In an amended complaint filed Tuesday morning, attorneys with the Lawyers for Civil Rights accused DeSantis’ Chief of Staff James Uthmeier and the governor’s “public safety czar” Larry Keefe of working together with others to “deceive” migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis, Florida Transportation Secretary James Perdue and the Florida Department of Transportation are also being sued.

Others now named in the lawsuit include Perla Huerta, who is identified in the lawsuit as the “lead recruiter” of the 49 migrants who were flown to Massachusetts, and James Montgomerie, the president of Vertol Systems Company, the company contracted by Florida to relocate the migrants. Vertol Systems Company is also named as a defendant.

Spokespersons for DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment on the amended complaint. When reached by phone, an employee of Vertol Systems said the company was not interested in commenting.

Huerta did not respond to a request for comment, either.

The new allegations in the 86-page complaint follow the release of documents about the flights by the state in recent weeks.

The amended complaint includes details of how the DeSantis administration ultimately went with Vertol Systems as the aviation contractor to carry out the plan to send two planes from Texas to Massachusetts on Sept. 14.

The suit, first filed in federal court in Massachusetts in late September, alleges that DeSantis, Florida’s Transportation Department secretary and others tricked migrants into leaving Texas by offering them McDonald’s gift cards and other items to board the flights, and by promising them assistance and employment.

Keefe, the public safety czar, was once outside counsel for Vertol Systems and represented the company in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017. He led the company’s litigation strategy, suing former employees accused of misusing funds, contractors suspected of stealing company secrets and a local lawn care company that ran over a wire connected to one of the company’s helicopters.

FDOT received three bids from companies seeking to carry out the migrant relocation program, according to the allegations in the amended suit. Among them were Gun Girls, Inc, which transports inmates from state prisons, Wheels Up, a private charter plane company, and Vertol Systems. State records show the company received two payments from the state in September for its transportation services, totaling over $1.5 million.

The amended suit also cites documents released last month by the state to allege a careful coordination between Keefe, Uthmeier, Montgomerie and Huerta to lure migrants on the planes and carry out the program. The migrants on the planes were primarily from Venezuela, as well as Peru.

“All actors — public or private — involved in this effort to exploit our clients for political or monetary gain will be held accountable,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights. “Let this be a warning to anyone thinking about becoming involved in a deceptive scheme like this in the future: do so at your peril.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this story.