Treasury Dept. investigating DeSantis’ asylum-seeker airlift to Martha’s Vineyard

Probe centers on possible misuse of federal COVID relief funds

By: - October 12, 2022 12:42 pm

Florida Immigrant Coalition photo

The U.S. Treasury Department is investigating Florida’s use of interest on federal COVID relief aid to finance Gov. Ron DeSantis’ airlift of asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

In a letter dated Friday, Oct. 7, Inspector General Richard Delmar informed U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation that the department was looking into “whether the state of Florida has improperly used funds obtained or derived from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SFLFR) to transport persons to Massachusetts.

“As part of its oversight responsibilities for the SFLFR, [the department] has audit work planned on recipients’ compliance with eligible-use guidance. In addition, as part of our oversight work of the Coronavirus Relief Fund established by the CARES Act, we have already sought information from Florida about appropriate use of that fund,” Delmar wrote.

Sarah Betancourt, a reporter for the public broadcaster GBH in Boston, reported the development on her Twitter feed on Tuesday evening. Markey and the other elected officials wrote to Treasury on Sept. 19 requesting the probe. Politico Florida posted a story about the probe around midnight.

“.@USTreasury responded to my letter, confirming that it will investigate @GovRonDeSantis’ use of Covid relief funds to cruelly transport immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses and without any consideration for their personal dignity or basic needs,” Markey wrote on his own Twitter feed.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General had no immediate reply to a request for comment. DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske issued a written statement:

“Weeks ago, the Office of Policy and Budget (OPB) spoke with the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) about using interest gained from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) program to transport illegal immigrants voluntarily to sanctuary jurisdictions,” she said.

“As stated under the SLFRF compliance requirements, ‘the following provisions do not apply to the SLFRF program: 2 CFR § 200.305 (b)(8) and (9).’ OPB articulated to Treasury’s OIG that our use of this interest, as appropriated by the Florida Legislature, is permissible under the SLFRF Final Rule.

“Reviews by Treasury are typical and, as stated by the OIG, are ‘part of its oversight responsibilities,’ Fenske concluded.”

The flights

According to public records, the state paid a contractor more than $1 million to fly around 50 asylum seekers from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard; the two flights touched down in Crestview but none of the migrants left the planes. A second scheduled flight aimed at President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware was scrubbed.

The two flights deposited them on Sept. 14 without warning in Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation spot where residents scrambled to provide services. Members of the group reported being promised jobs and benefits to which they were not legally entitled as asylum seekers. DeSantis defended the move as intended to prevent the people becoming a burden to Florida and to make northern liberals bear some of the burden of immigration.

Separate lawsuits filed by immigration-rights groups and state Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami-Dade County allege the flights were illegal under Florida budget proviso language providing $12 million for the Florida Department of Transportation to “unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”

As asylum seekers with immigration court hearings set, the migrants did not constitute “unauthorized aliens.”

In addition, the Florida Center for Government Accountability filed suit on Monday to force the DeSantis administration to deliver on information requests for public records regarding the migrant relocation program; the group says it has yet to receive anything from the governor’s office.

The $12 million is from interest on unspent federal COVID relief money. Delmar said Treasury is specifically looking into whether it was legal to apply the money to immigration programs.

“We plan to get this work underway as quickly as possible, consistent with meeting our other oversight mandates and priorities, both in pandemic recovery programs as well as other Treasury programs and operations for which we have responsibility. We are also monitoring legislative and judicial challenges to the use of the funds for this purpose; such developments may affect the scope and timing of our review,” Delmar wrote.

Note: This story has been updated to include remarks from the governor’s office.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.