You can see why Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to prevent Floridians from learning more about the flights that took migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
What Floridians know is bad enough.
The DeSantis administration is fighting two lawsuits demanding that the governor and others involved explain under oath why and how the state paid to send 48 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Even though the lawsuits have not yet succeeded (and we haven’t heard much from a Texas sheriff who’s investigating potential crimes related to operation) information continues to come out — none of it good.
To recap, the Republican-led Legislature included in this year’s budget $12 million for DeSantis to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” We emphasize those last three words because they are at the heart of the issue.
DeSantis claimed for months without evidence that the Biden administration had allowed thousands — maybe millions — of undocumented migrants to come to Florida. Yet the governor apparently couldn’t find any of them to remove.
A Florida stopover
So the governor hired operatives to find migrants in Texas. Two planes took 48 of them from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard with a stopover at Bob Sikes Airport in the Florida Panhandle.
Clearly, the flights were illegal. They did not remove anyone from this state. DeSantis has tried to argue that “most of (the migrants in Texas) are intending to come to Florida.”
In fact, these 48 had no such intention. They were seeking refugee status after fleeing oppression in Venezuela. Under federal law, they were not “unauthorized aliens.”
In fact, the flights themselves were unauthorized. That stop in Crestview certainly doesn’t satisfy the language of the budget.
Nor has DeSantis been up front about how — and on whom — he has spent the money. Again, though, what we know is shady.
According to news reports, the state paid about $1.5 million to Vertol Systems to “facilitate” DeSantis’ migrant stunts. The company, which owns a fleet of aircraft and also provides aviation training, is based in Destin, about 40 miles south of Bob Sikes Airport.
The first payment to Vertol was $615,000. But records show that the quote for those flights to Martha’s Vineyard was just $153,000. Another $950,000 went to Vertol supposedly to finance migrant flights to Delaware — near where President Biden vacations — and Illinois. Those flights never happened. So where’d the money go?
Now let’s get to the cast of characters.
Larry Keefe is the state’s “public safety czar,” a position DeSantis created. As the governor announced Keefe’s appointment last year, he announced a lawsuit against the Biden administration for “refusing to enforce the immigration laws of this country.” No details.
Between 2010 and 2017, Keefe represented Vertol Systems. James Montgomerie, the company’s president, has donated money to several Republican candidates and to the Republican Party of Florida.
One of those candidates was U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. Gaetz served on DeSantis’ transition team after the 2018 election. He also did legal work for Vertol.
A credible Legislature might hold hearings to determine if the governor is spending that $12 million properly. That won’t happen. Republicans in Tallahassee don’t challenge DeSantis on anything, even as he cuts their budget items. That won’t change with a new Senate president and House speaker.
But here’s a reason for Tallahassee to want answers. To finance his performances for 2024 presidential primary voters, DeSantis is risking serious legal jeopardy for Florida.
What if one of those migrant flights had crashed? What if a future flight does? The state would be liable for all casualties. Any competent lawyer could show that the migrants posed no danger to Florida. And they should get the chance: Montgomerie, Keefe and several others alleged to be involved with the plot have been added to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the hoodwinked migrants and the groups behind that suit appear to be sharing information with Bexar County (Texas) Sheriff Javier Salazar.
And here’s the irony. As DeSantis bashes Biden on immigration, he finances the migrant flights with interest on the COVID-19 relief money that Florida got after every Republican in Congress voted against it and DeSantis said the legislation was “Washington at its worst.” DeSantis used another $4 billion from that legislation for favors in this year’s budget to make himself look good.
Tallahassee Republicans do the state no favors by looking the other way on the migrant flights. DeSantis can spend that $12 million until June 30 of next year. If he runs for president, that money could finance more reckless ideas to showcase the governor before anti-immigrant GOP voters.
Even if lickspittle legislators don’t want answers or accountability, taxpayers do. It’s their money, spent recklessly and in a wholly clandestine way.
The irony is that undocumented migrants are coming to Florida to help rebuild after Hurricane Ian. DeSantis should send those planes to Fort Myers, not Massachusetts.
This editorial, originally published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, has been updated. The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board includes Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Opinion Editor Krys Fluker and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Anderson. Send your letters to insight@orlando sentinel.com.