Miami state Sen. Pizzo sues DeSantis, others over migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard

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A new lawsuit has been brought against Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials over Florida’s program to fly migrants from Texas to other states.

The lawsuit — filed by state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a South Florida Democrat, in his capacity as a private citizen — alleges that the program violates state law, in part because the migrants are not being relocated from Florida. It asks a judge to stop future flights and seeks no damages.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bipartisan budget that included language allocating $12 million to establish a program facilitating “the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”

Last week, DeSantis tapped that money to fly 48 Venezuelan migrants on two charter flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island. That led to criticism from Florida Democrats, who pointed out that the asylum-seekers had never been in Florida, except when their planes briefly touched down at an airport in the Panhandle on their way from Texas to the Northeast.

READ MORE: Company hired to arrange DeSantis’ migrant flights is tied to high-level state official

Pizzo’s suit argues that DeSantis is implementing the program in a way that violates the budget language and another law on two points. One, the migrants, who are seeking asylum and have legal status in the United States, are not “unauthorized aliens.” And, two, none of them were in Florida.

While he acknowledged voting for the budget, Pizzo said the governor was not following the language set out for this specific appropriation.

“This is very clear and straightforward,” he said in an interview. “The governor had legislators carry and pass bills that were designed to suit his agenda and that he subsequently signed into law. And even with that completely privileged position, he still can’t comply with the law. He set the rules for the game and then he can’t follow them.”

Filed in state court in Leon County, the 15-page complaint also names Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, the Florida Department of Transportation and Jared Perdue, the department’s secretary.

Pizzo, an attorney, says he will argue the case himself.

Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ communications director, responded in an emailed statement: “Senator Pizzo never misses an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame and is challenging an action on an appropriation he voted for.”

Patronis’ office also responded by noting that Pizzo had voted for the budget, a $109.9 billion package that legislators must vote for or against in its entirety.

“Senator Pizzo, along with Minority Leader Lauren Book, voted for the $12 million appropriation to relocate migrants,” wrote Devin Galletta, communications director for the Florida Department of Financial Services. “Now that the law that they voted for is being implemented, and shedding light on the border crisis, Pizzo and Book have gone to their same old handbook, and hired a Democratic operative attorney to go after the executive branch for following the law. We are in receipt of the filing and we are currently exploring options for sanction and/or countersuit measures.”

FDOT did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

Pizzo’s lawsuit is not the only legal challenge facing DeSantis.

READ MORE: Operatives linked to DeSantis promised to fly migrants to Delaware — but left them stranded

Three of the Martha’s Vineyard migrants, who said they’d been duped into getting on the flights with false promises of jobs, are now suing DeSantis in Massachusetts federal court for civil rights violations. And the Democratic sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, Javier Salazar, has announced a criminal investigation into the flights.

During an appearance on CNN earlier this week, Salazar didn’t name DeSantis but said that “people that may have been associated with him or employed by him or contracted by him ... may have broken the law.”

Venezuelan Luis Oswaldo, 39, was stranded at a La Quinta hotel in San Antonio after his flight to Delaware, arranged by operatives working for Gov. Ron DeSantis, was canceled without warning. At least 20 other migrants were left with few resources and no idea where to go next.
Venezuelan Luis Oswaldo, 39, was stranded at a La Quinta hotel in San Antonio after his flight to Delaware, arranged by operatives working for Gov. Ron DeSantis, was canceled without warning. At least 20 other migrants were left with few resources and no idea where to go next.

At a Thursday news conference in Miami, DeSantis defended the program, saying it was stopping migrants from getting to Florida in the first place. He also said he had successfully refocused the nation’s attention on immigration policy.

“This was not an issue of concern two weeks ago, so we’re proud of that,” he said.

He did not answer questions about another charter flight set up by operatives working for him. The flight was scheduled to depart San Antonio on Tuesday carrying more Venezuelan migrants and land at a Delaware airport near President Joe Biden’s summer home, according to a Miami Herald investigation.

But the charter was canceled without explanation — leaving the migrants stranded once more.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Sommer Brugal contributed to this report.