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DeSantis’ migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard appear outside the scope of Florida transport program guidelines, state documents show

By Steve Contorno, CNN

A pair of flights carrying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last month, orchestrated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, may have exceeded the original scope of the state’s plan to transport undocumented individuals, according to records obtained by CNN.

The records show that in the months leading up to those flights, Florida had planned a narrower mission for a controversial new state program to transport migrants to other states. The goal, according to a callout to contractors and guidelines for the program, was to, “relocate out of the state of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”

But that’s not what transpired. On September 14, two planes picked up 48 migrants in San Antonio — not Florida — and dropped them off in Martha’s Vineyard.

The documents, provided to CNN through a records request and released Friday evening by the Florida Department of Transportation and the governor’s office, offer new details about the stunt that thrust DeSantis even deeper into the middle of a national debate on immigration. From the White House to Florida, Massachusetts and beyond, the condemnation from Democrats was swift. So was the praise from Republicans for DeSantis, who only further bolstered his standing in his party as he considers running for President in 2024.

A Democratic state lawmaker is already suing the state and asking a judge to stop future flights, arguing the DeSantis administration was illegally spending taxpayer dollars. The budget act that created the $12 million program specified the money was set aside to relocate “unauthorized aliens from this state.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Scope of program was initially narrower, documents show

The records for the first time also directly tie a $615,000 state payment made to Vertol Systems Company for the September flights that sent migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. Previously, the payment to Vertol was disclosed by the state, but the governor’s office for weeks declined to confirm that the check was linked to the flights that landed in Massachusetts.

The Florida Department of Transportation, the agency tasked with executing the new migrant relocation program, received a price quote from Vertol CEO James Montgomerie on September 6 for “the first Project,” one document showed. Montgomerie identified that project as “the facilitation of the relocation of up to fifty individuals to the State of Massachusetts or other, proximate northeastern state.” The price, he said, was $615,000.

The next day, FDOT officials sent a letter asking for authorization for the $615,000 and the state made the payment within the next 24 hours, according to financial statements maintained on the Florida Chief Financial Officer’s website previously reported by CNN.

In communications with FDOT earlier during the summer, Montgomerie offered the state services that suggested a considerably less ambitious mission for the migrant relocation program.

On July 26, after a discussion with FDOT’s general counsel, Montgomerie gave the agency estimates for his company to charter flights that could carry four to 12 people from Crestview, Florida, to the Boston or Los Angeles areas, according to an email from the Vertol executive to FDOT.

“We are certainly willing to provide you with pricing information on specific ad-hoc requirements on a case by case basis,” Montgomerie wrote in the email.

The prices quoted for flights originating from Florida more closely aligned with FDOT’s guidelines for the program that it sent to prospective contractors and the agency’s request for quotes. In the three-page guidelines, FDOT stipulated the chosen company needed to ensure “that the Unauthorized Alien has voluntarily agreed to be relocated out of Florida.” The quotes also showed Montgomerie early on anticipated Vertol would be moving less people. Later, in September, his quotes evolved to include many more people on board.

Ultimately, the planes that left San Antonio briefly touched down in Crestview before eventually landing in Massachusetts.

At the time of the state’s request for contractors, DeSantis was publicly claiming that President Joe Biden could send buses of migrants from the US-Mexico border to Florida. But DeSantis acknowledged last month those buses never arrived, and his focus began to shift hundreds of miles away to Texas.

DeSantis has said the intention of executing the flights from Texas was to stop the flow of migrants at the source before they came to Florida.

“If you can do it at the source and divert to sanctuary jurisdictions, the chance they end up in Florida is much less,” DeSantis told reporters in September.

DeSantis has vowed to use “every penny” of the $12 million allocated to his administration for migrant transports. However, the state has not publicly taken credit for any transports since the two planes landed in Martha’s Vineyard.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, the lawmaker now suing DeSantis, said the governor cannot choose to ignore the law when spending state money.

“You can’t even play by your own rules,” Pizzo told CNN last month when speaking of DeSantis. “This isn’t something that we passed 12 years ago. It was done four months ago at your request.”

DeSantis’ office previously said the lawsuit by Pizzo was an attempt at “15 minutes of fame.”

The state has paid Vertol $1.6 million so far through its migrant program, which is funded by interest earned on federal coronavirus relief money, according to the state budget documents. The initial payment of $615,000 was made by the FDOT on September 8, six days before the Martha’s Vineyard flight. Another payment for $950,000 followed on September 16, though it’s not clear what that payment went for.

A few days after that second payment, reports of a similar flight plan from San Antonio to Delaware, Biden’s home state, sent officials there scrambling to prepare for migrant arrivals. The flights, though, never arrived.

The state did not provide a contract with Vertol in the records released Friday night. Nor do the documents offer further insight into why Vertol was chosen over two other companies that appeared to submit quotes to the state, according to records.

CNN has reached out to Montgomerie for further comment.

Vertol had an existing link to a DeSantis administration official prior to its work with the state. Lawrence Keefe, Florida’s “public safety czar” appointed by DeSantis to lead the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration, represented the aviation company from 2010 to 2017.

In its quoted price to the state, Vertol said it was providing “Project management, aircraft, crew, maintenance logistics, fuel, coordination and planning, route preparation, route services, landing fees, ground handling and logistics and other Project-related expenses,” according to the documents.

The request for quotes from the state also asked that potential contractors have “multilingual capability for Spanish.” The chosen contractor would also have to develop procedures for “confirming with Partner Agencies that the person to be transported is an Unauthorized Alien.” Pizzo and others have questioned whether the migrants are considered “unauthorized” by the federal government if they are legally seeking asylum.

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