Judge refuses to dismiss legal challenge to DeSantis’ asylum-seeker flights

By: - January 13, 2023 3:44 pm

Circuit Judge John Cooper. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

A state senator’s legal challenge to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ asylum-seeker airlifts will proceed to trial under a ruling that a state trial judge in Tallahassee handed down on Friday.

“I think we need to just hear out these issues,” Circuit Judge John Cooper said following arguments over a motion by DeSantis and the Florida Department of Transportation to throw out the lawsuit filed in September by State Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami-Dade County.

However, Cooper did dismiss Pizzo’s complaint that Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis improperly signed $1.5 million in checks to a company called Vertol Systems to fly nearly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., with a stop in Florida, in September, plus subsequent flights to Delaware that ended up being scrubbed.

Merely signing the checks wasn’t enough to embroil Patronis in the alleged wrongdoing, Cooper said during a nearly two-hour hearing.

Pizzo, a Democrat, alleges a number of legal violations by DeSantis, including that he effected his airlift through language in the annual state budget bill instead of through substantive law, which the Florida Constitution forbids. The budget authorized $12 million in federal COVD aid for the program.

Nick Meros, deputy general counsel in the Executive Office of the Governor, argued that a state law approved separately last year allowed the migrant flights. That law generally forbids state agencies from doing business with carriers that transport migrants into Florida, unless it’s to facilitate their removal to another place.

Yet to be resolved is whether DeSantis can be made to turn over planning documents in the airlift. The Miami Herald has reported that Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety adviser, was closely involved in making the arrangements with Vertol, which he had represented while in private law practice.

A protracted fight over discovery — the governor’s obligation or not to turn over such records — could delay a final resolution, Mark Herron, Pizzo’s attorney, told reporters following the hearing and allow more flights.

“The governor has said, ‘I intend to spend the entire $12 million,'” Herron said.

In a separate action, the Florida Center for Governmental Accountability is seeking documents relating to the airlift, which also is under legal attack in federal court in Massachusetts in a lawsuit filed by Alianza Americas on behalf of three of the migrants who were flown to that state.

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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