Federal watchdog probes whether covid aid enabled Florida's migrant flight

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks in a neighborhood impacted by Hurricane Ian at Fisherman's Wharf in Fort Myers, Florida, on October 5, 2022 as US President Joe Biden visits the area. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images) (OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images)

A federal watchdog is investigating whether Florida improperly tapped coronavirus aid to fly migrants to Martha's Vineyard, part of a widening government inquiry into states that put their pandemic dollars toward controversial immigration crackdowns.

The inspector general for the Treasury Department confirmed its new interest in a letter sent last week to Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and other members of Congress who had expressed concern that the spending approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) "violates federal law."

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The probe comes roughly a month after Florida flew dozens of migrants, including children, from Texas to Massachusetts, in the latest example of a Republican-led state sending migrants to Democratic-leaning communities.

To pay for the flights, DeSantis said he would tap a $12 million fund in the state's recent budget. But that money came from the interest Florida had earned on the more than $8 billion it received under the last federal stimulus package, called the American Rescue Plan, The Washington Post reported as part of its year-long investigation into the pandemic aid, known as the Covid Money Trail.

The approach immediately generated legal debate, not the least because the flights originated in Texas. It also raised new questions about the state of stimulus oversight in Washington, where Congress gave local governments great latitude to spend their allocations as they saw fit. The Treasury Department said even less about how states could use the interest generated on the money while it remained unspent, potentially opening the door for Florida's maneuver.

Asked about the probe, the White House referred the matter to the Treasury Department, which declined to comment. Its inspector general confirmed the letter but otherwise declined to comment.

Taryn Fenske, the communications director for DeSantis, said the state's top budget office spoke with the inspector general about its spending approach. Otherwise, Fenske pointed to federal guidelines, which the state says allows it to use interest generated from coronavirus aid on immigration.

The investigation into the spending in Florida is only the latest inquiry targeting federal aid in Republican-led states. The Treasury Department's top watchdog previously announced it would review whether Texas acted improperly when it used a different budgetary move to take advantage of federal coronavirus relief funds to ease the costs of border enforcement, as The Post first reported earlier this year.

In both cases, the probes involve emergency federal programs that were meant to give local governments great flexibility to respond to public health and economic needs. Repeatedly, though, GOP leaders have put the money toward unrelated purposes and political pet projects - from constructing a prison in Atlanta to pursuing tax cuts in Florida and elsewhere that, at minimum, violate the spirit of the congressional relief efforts.

In Florida, critics described the approach as wasteful, arguing that federal money might have been better put toward improving local education, boosting hospitals or otherwise helping low-income residents. In Massachusetts, where Florida sent the migrants, Markey and other Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Seth Moulton and Ayanna Pressley, described the flights as a "political stunt," which they said "runs contrary to congressional intent."

"While the rule was designed to provide flexibility to state and local governments, Congress neither intended to allow, or authorized, state governments to use the SLFRF funds for immigration enforcement," the lawmakers wrote in a letter last month to the inspector general requesting the probe. SLFRF refers to the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, the $350 billion program under the American Rescue Plan that awarded Florida the money in question.

The chief watchdog for the Treasury Department responded on Friday, acknowledging in a letter that it is seeking "more detailed analysis" from the agency on its guidelines.

"We will review the allowability of use of SLFRF funds related to immigration generally, and will specifically confirm whether interest earned on SLFRF was utilized by Florida related to immigration activities, and if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use," wrote Richard K. Delmar, the deputy inspector general.

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