FL watchdog group sues governor’s office for failing to produce records related to migrant flights

By: - October 10, 2022 3:23 pm

“Here’s what Jesus would not do: lie to a bunch of vulnerable poor people fleeing for their lives and dump them out like trash, then boast about it.” Credit: Gerry Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his office are now being sued by a government accountability group for failing to produce specific documents related to the state flying nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., last month.

It’s the latest court action that has resulted since the state moved the mostly Venezuelan group of migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Massachusetts on Sept. 14, although they never actually set foot in Florida.

The Florida Center for Government Accountability filed the lawsuit on Monday in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County. The suit says that on two occasions last month it filed public information requests for public records regarding the migrant relocation program but has yet to receive anything from the governor’s office.

Their first request asked for any records related to the program from James Uthmeier, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff, as well as records sent or received from Vertol Systems, the charter airline company the state paid $615,000 to send the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. It also requested any records sent or received from Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott regarding the migrant relocation program.

A second public information request called for the governor’s office to release any records “purporting to be a waiver” signed by immigrants in San Antonio or from their connecting flights to North Carolina or Florida before arriving at Martha’s Vineyard.

The organization is calling on the court to hold an immediate hearing to compel the governor’s office to release the records. The governor’s office had no immediate reply to a request for comment.

The state paid the company another $950,000 to fly migrants to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware but apparently scrubbed that trip.

The Florida Phoenix was able to receive some records related to the flights to Martha’s Vineyard over the weekend from the Florida Dept. of Transportation (FDOT).

Among those records are an email written by Vertol Systems Company CEO James Montgomery on Sept. 6 providing FDOT with a list of three options for how much a flight transporting passengers would cost, specifically noting that the “first project (hereafter “Project 1”) shall involve the facilitation of the relocation of up to fifty (50) individuals to the state of Massachusetts or other, proximate northeastern state designated by FDOT based upon the extant conditions. The total price for all services related to Project 1 is $615,000, subject to FDOT approval.”

Montgomery also wrote that the project would continue for months, writing that “this proposal contemplates the ongoing delivery of these services to FDOT on an ongoing, month-to-month basis, in the form of separate relocation projects.”

Stephanie D. Iliff, director of Office of Administration at FDOT , wrote in a memo dated Sept. 7 that the “transportation services shall be ongoing, on a month-to-month basis. Services include project management, aircraft, crew, maintenance logistics, fuel, coordination and planning, route preparation, route services, landing fees, ground handling and logistics, and other project-related expenses.”

There have been two previous lawsuits filed against the state regarding the flying of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a civil lawsuit against Gov. DeSantis, FDOT Sec. Jared Perdue, the state of Florida, and FDOT on behalf of the migrants who were transported to Martha’s Vineyard.

Miami-based Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo has also filed a lawsuit against the governor and other state officials as a private citizen. Pizzo’s suit charges that the state violated the law creating the $12 million fund to transport “unauthorized” aliens away from Florida.

As asylum seekers with pending immigration court hearings, they were not in the country unlawfully, Pizzo argues. Moreover, their flight originated in Texas, not Florida, meaning that they were not “from this state,” he adds.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.