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In tweaking Florida’s secretive migrant flights program, lawmakers ask little, reveal less

Florida lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a measure that would not only expand Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ability to relocate migrants anywhere in the country but would allow his administration to hand out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies to carry out the secretive program without disclosing details to the public.

Republican lawmakers who are sponsoring the proposal have acknowledged that they do not know how the administration plans to spend $10 million that would be set aside for the immigration program between now and the end of June. The expenses, they said, could include surveillance, reconnaissance and investigations, as well as feeding and housing migrants while they wait for a plane ride.

Lawmakers admitted in hearings Monday in the House and Tuesday in the Senate that they do not have details about how the administration has spent an estimated $2 million on the previous migrant relocation efforts — despite allegations that the covert operation misled some migrants, paid an undocumented worker to recruit passengers and shielded details from the public.

But, they argue, the administration should be given “as much flexibility” as possible to spend future state funds because they consider the nation’s immigration troubles a Florida emergency.

“What this bill is intended to do is to address the surge of unauthorized aliens that are coming into the United States that could choose Florida as their desired location,’’ Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, sponsor of the House bill entitled “Transportation of Inspected Unauthorized Aliens,” said Monday.

He explained that the costs go beyond transporting them across the country.

“We’re authorizing a program, and we understand to fully execute this program surveillance is needed, reconnaissance is needed, investigative techniques are needed,” Snyder said.

READ MORE: Perla was his boss. He was her ace. Inside the covert op behind DeSantis’ migrant flights

The measures would repeal the law that DeSantis was sued over last year — and replace it with a measure to transfer the migrant relocation program from the Florida Department of Transportation to the Division of Emergency Management, which is working with the federal government on migrant intervention efforts. Legislators are waiving the rules that the program be competitively bid and are not addressing allegations that migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard were misled.

“We cannot afford to waste any time to go through the rule-making process and have that dragged out when the need is today,” Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, the Republican sponsor of the bill, told the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on Tuesday.

The Senate committee approved the measure, SB 6-B, on Tuesday and the House Appropriations Committee passed a similar HB 5-B on Monday. The measures, which passed both committees along party-line votes, are being considered during a special session, along with several of the governor’s other legislative priorities.

The Senate approved the measure along a party-line vote on Wednesday. The same measure is poised to be approved by the Republican-led House on Thursday for final passage. The proposal would go into effect as soon as DeSantis signs it into law.

What would change?

The governor’s office asked to revise the law after it flew 49 mostly-Venezuelan asylum seekers from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island. The flights made a 30-minute stop in the Florida Panhandle, a possible attempt to abide by legislation passed last year that gave DeSantis up to $12 million to relocate migrants “from Florida.”

In addition to transferring the program and waiving state rules for a competitive bid, the bills include language that would make sure that “all payments made pursuant to [the original law] are deemed approved.”

That raises new questions about whether the details of the clandestine program that was managed by the governor’s “public safety czar,” Larry Keefe, will ever be exposed, and whether the payments made to Vertol Systems Company, a politically connected Destin-based vendor that won the contract, will ever be scrutinized.

A Venezuelan migrant is led onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. A group of 48 migrants was flown to the island from Texas earlier this week, leaving them stranded.
A Venezuelan migrant is led onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Sept. 16, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. A group of 48 migrants was flown to the island from Texas earlier this week, leaving them stranded.

Vertol was a legal client of Keefe, who ran a Destin law firm before his career in government. Documents obtained by the Herald/Times show that Keefe wrote some of the language used in the company’s bid proposal to fly migrants from Texas to Democratic states.

Text messages obtained in a lawsuit by the Florida Center for Government Accountability revealed that Keefe used a private email address with the alias “Clarice Starling” — a reference to Jodie Foster’s FBI character in “Silence of the Lambs” — to help Vertol win the contract. Legislators estimate that $2 million of the $12 million authorized for this fiscal year has been spent.

Neither lawmakers nor the Florida Department of Transportation have clarified what the money has been spent on. But reporting by the Miami Herald found that a Venezuelan migrant who was unable to legally work in the United States was paid $700 to work with the state contractor coordinating the flights.

According to the state’s Transparency Florida web site, Vertol Systems Company was paid $1.56 million for three flight projects, and FDOT said it agreed to waive its own rules to pay Vertol in advance.

Little is known about the payments

Emails between the Florida Department of Transportation and Vertol CEO James Montgomerie, which were obtained by the Herald/Times, show that Montgomerie proposed a pair of flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in September at a combined charge to the state of $615,000.

He then proposed two more flights, of up to 50 migrants each, between Sept. 19 and Oct. 3. One flight to Delaware would cost Florida taxpayers $425,000 and a final flight to Illinois would cost $525,000. Records show the state paid $950,000 for the flights, but neither the governor’s office nor FDOT answered questions about why the second and third flights were postponed and what has happened to the money the state paid Vertol in advance.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami Beach, is suing the governor in his capacity as a private citizen, claiming the law was violated last year. He alleges that the governor ignored the legislative provision in the 2022-23 budget that allowed him to relocate migrants but only if they were from Florida and estimates the state has spent $32,000 to $90,000 per Venezuelan asylum seeker.

Snyder, the House bill sponsor, told the House Appropriations Committee on Monday he could not answer questions about how the money was spent but suggested it was wrong to put a price tag on each individual who was relocated.

He emphasized that the program involves seeking volunteers who want to be moved from the Texas border to a sanctuary city that is more welcoming to migrants but, he added without explanation, that also requires covert operations.

“We’re not authorizing a specific amount of flights,’’ he said.

In addition to secretive operations, the governor’s office has argued that it should not have to disclose public records relating to the migrant program, citing “executive privilege.”

“The executive privilege shields the [Executive Office of the Governor] from inquiries into consultants, directions or discussions among its high-ranking officials or with other executive branch agencies,” attorneys for the governor wrote in its defense in the Pizzo case. “Governor DeSantis and his staff must be free to openly and critically discuss ideas and policies without fear that their discussions could become public.”

The House Appropriations Committee rejected several Democratic amendments aimed at increasing spending transparency and prohibiting the state from contracting with politically connected vendors.

Questions about political motivations

Political motivations were a persistent theme as legislators in both the House and Senate debated the merits of the migrant flight proposal.

Democrats argued that the Legislature was giving the governor what North Miami Rep. Dotie Joseph called Monday “a carte blanche to continue with his illegal shenanigans.” Republicans defended the effort as a reaction to what Ingoglia called ”the ineptness and the incompetence of the federal government when it comes to immigration policy.”

“What we are doing right now is carrying the water for the governor knowing that what he did was wrong and you are all holding your nose to vote for this, saying it is right,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said Tuesday.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, disagreed.

“I am not holding my nose to vote on anything,” Mayfield said. “I think this bill has been thoughtfully put together.”

This story was updated Wednesday, Feb. 8, to include the most recent votes on the proposed legislation.