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New Florida records raise more questions about DeSantis’s migrant flights

The governor’s administration had been orchestrating the flights for several months

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has been under scrutiny over flights transporting migrants to other states. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

In the request for bids to round up migrants to transport across the country, the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was unequivocal: The winning contractor needed to fly out unauthorized new arrivals found in the state.

The parameters, laid out by the Florida Department of Transportation and disclosed in public records released by the state late Friday, are raising new questions about whether the program violated state protocols when DeSantis officials chartered two planes to fly 48 migrants from San Antonio — far from Florida’s shores — to Massachusetts last month.

The widely criticized political maneuver appeared to operate outside the boundaries of the $12 million program Florida lawmakers authorized in their budget in June to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

Vertol Systems, the Oregon-based charter airline company, flew the group of Venezuelans, some of whom said they were lured onto the flights with promises of work and housing, to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast known as a politically liberal-leaning community.

The flights on Sept. 14 began in San Antonio and first landed in Crestview, Fla., a Panhandle city 36 miles north of Vertol’s Florida headquarters in Destin. After a brief stop, they proceeded to Martha’s Vineyard later that day.

Florida officials have not offered an official explanation for the stop in Crestview, which has raised speculation about whether it was intended to look like the mission had a plausible connection with the state, as the rules of the program had laid out.

The Post's Maria Sacchetti explains why the governors of Texas and Florida sent migrants to Martha's Vineyard in September. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The information released Friday does not include the full contract the DeSantis administration awarded to Vertol. But records show that the state paid the company $615,000 for the Texas flights on Sept. 8 and another $950,000 on Sept. 19, reportedly for another flight carrying migrants to President Biden’s home state of Delaware, which was canceled.

DeSantis has said the flights were designed to send a message to Democrats, who he claims have resisted efforts to address the country’s border crisis. “Most of them are intending to come to Florida,” he said during a news conference in Dayton Beach, Fla., two days after the Texas flight. “Our view is you have to deal with it at the source.”

Scrutiny mounts over DeSantis’s use of state funds for migrant flights

The relocation program was launched in July, when Rebekah Davis, the Florida Department of Transportation’s general counsel, issued a request for quotes from interested transportation companies.

The transportation department sought a company to “implement and manage a program to relocate out of the State of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States,” according to the request for quotes in the newly released records. The winner would transport by ground or air “Unauthorized Aliens who are found in Florida and have agreed to be relocated” elsewhere in the United States and the District of Columbia.

The plans also required the contractor to work with a multitude of Florida agencies, including the Florida Department of Corrections, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Nowhere in the requests for bids was recruiting migrants from Texas or San Antonio mentioned. Other cities were mentioned as possible destinations.

Vertol’s chief executive, James Montgomerie, gave Davis quotes in an email for possible charter flights on a King Air 350 turboprop from Crestview to Boston (at a cost of $35,000) and Crestview to Los Angeles (at a cost of $60,000) for between four and eight people, an indication that the state was interested in these potential destinations for migrant flights. The subject line in Davis’s email to Montgomerie was “Florida Charter Flights.”

The migrant flights are the subject of a criminal investigation in Texas and a civil suit from several of the asylum seekers who say the DeSantis administration deceived them.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat from South Florida, who has filed a lawsuit as a private citizen seeking injunctive relief, alleges that the program violates state law, in part because the migrants were not being relocated from Florida.

“Oops, the five people that reviewed this missed it — or they will have to claim that the vendor went rogue” by flying the migrants from Texas, Pizzo said in an interview. “It was pretty clear with a plain reading of the law what was supposed to happen.”

When asked for comment on Saturday, the governor’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, did not address the question of whether the DeSantis administration may have violated state guidelines with the Texas flights. “We’re exclusively focused on Hurricane Ian relief and recovery. I’m with Floridians right now,” said Fenske.