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Editorial: Where did $1.4 million in migrant flight money go? DeSantis won’t tell Floridians

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 11/23/2022 The Miami Herald, The Miami Herald
Andrew’ s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, seen here the following day. © Bianca Padro Ocasio/Miami Herald/TNS Andrew’ s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, seen here the following day.

Maybe you think it’s OK that Gov. Ron DeSantis used taxpayer dollars to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in the Northeast as a way to raise the alarms about border security and potentially embarrass President Joe Biden. Maybe you think enticing migrants with fake job offers is fine because they didn’t come here legally, and what can they expect?

But even if you agree with the governor gleefully using people as pawns — and we certainly don’t — there’s now the matter of $1.4 million in taxpayer money that remains unaccounted for after those September flights.

The DeSantis administration paid more than $1.56 million to a politically connected contractor for a program to fly the migrants to northeastern states as part of his political stunt — but the two migrant flights in September only cost a total of about $153,000, according to public records obtained by the Miami Herald.

What happened to the rest of the money? The Miami Herald asked the DeSantis administration. So did the Editorial Board. We haven’t gotten a response.

DeSantis is widely considered to be a GOP favorite for the presidential nomination in 2024. The flights raised his national profile even more, along with his culture-wars agenda.

But the flights also set off a lot of backlash, rightfully. So far, there’s a local criminal investigation, a federal inquiry and several lawsuits — one from migrants who say they were tricked onto the flights with false promises of jobs and aid when they landed.

And now there are questions about how the money was spent on those two flights. Records show the contractor, Destin, Florida-based Vertol Systems Company, was quoted a total price of roughly $153,000 — roughly $2,550 per passenger — for two charter plane trips from San Antonio to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.

But it’s not clear how much the flights really cost or what Vertol ultimately spent — because the government hasn’t released the records of costs. The costs would presumably include things like hotel rooms for the 49 South American migrants recruited for the Sept. 14 flights, meals and travel supplies, along with charter buses to the airports.

And what about the expenses of the recruiters Vertol hired in San Antonio and the mysterious woman who apparently ran the operation, former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent Perla Huerta? We most definitely need to see those records, too.

There were potential flights to Delaware — where Biden is from — that were discussed but apparently never happened. The Miami Herald reported that the Florida Department of Transportation paid $950,000, out of the total $1.56 million, for those flights. (The state has budgeted a total of $12 million for its migrant-relocation program.)

While the DeSantis government hasn’t released the cost breakdown of how the $1.56 million was spent, it did release something else, earlier this month: 87 pages of records including text messages of executives with Vertol as they planned the flights. The texts — complete with exclamation points, thumbs-up emojis and talk of a celebratory dinner with wine — show an unholy excitement at the prospect of dropping migrants into unprepared cities. The texts also showed how Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration helped in guiding that effort, the Herald reported.

The records were only released in response to a court order in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Center on Government Accountability and records requests by the Miami Herald and other news organizations.

That still leaves the issue of $1.4 million unaccounted for, and, liberal or conservative, that should bother you. We already know there is a politically connected firm involved in this: DeSantis’ public-safety czar, Larry Keefe, who supervised the flights, also handled Vertol’s legal work for years and served as President Donald Trump’s U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida. That involvement makes us — and should make any thinking taxpayer — wonder even more why we don’t know exactly who got all the money.

By failing to disclose, swiftly and forthrightly, the records showing how the money for the flights was spent, the DeSantis administration is simply fueling our concerns that this money, our money, was used partly to move migrants — but mostly to help pave the governor’s path to the White House.


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