More than $1.4 million so far unaccounted for in Florida’s migrant flight program

So far, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis has paid more than $1.5 million to a politically connected contractor for a program to bring immigrants from Texas to the Northeast states, but private jets chartered by the contractor cost only a fraction of that. addition.

Newly released public records show that the contractor, Destin, Florida-based Vertol Systems Company, received a price of approximately $153,000 for two charter plane trips from San Antonio, Texas, to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.

That leaves about $1.4 million in Florida taxpayer funds unaccounted for.

DeSantis, who is considering a run for president after his landslide re-election as governor, drew national attention with the September migrant flights and said it was highlighting the crisis at the southern border. But the controversial program has so far spawned a local criminal investigation, a federal investigation and several lawsuits, including one from immigrants who say they were tricked into boarding the flights with false promises of work and help at the destination of the flights.

Related: What the text messages show about DeSantis’ plan to keep immigrants out of Texas

The quote for the Martha’s Vineyard charter flights was approximately $2,550 per passenger. It is unclear how much Vertol was ultimately billed.

In addition to the planes themselves, Vertol had to pay for motel rooms for the 49 South American immigrants recruited for the Sept. 14 Martha’s Vineyard flights, as well as meals, duffel bags and other travel supplies, Visa Cash cards for incidentals as immigrants. Waited for flights to fill up and chartered buses to and from airports. Other costs would have included the salaries and expenses of recruiters Vertol hired to find the migrants in San Antonio, including the woman running the operation, a former US Army counterintelligence agent named Perla Huerta.

Related: Perla and the behind-the-scenes efforts of DeSantis’ migrant flights

Florida also apparently paid Vertol for flights that have yet to take place. In proposals to the state, Vertol said he could transport more immigrants to Delaware, the state President Joe Biden used to represent in the Senate, as well as Illinois, both Democratic Party strongholds. The Florida Department of Transportation paid $950,000, of the total $1.565 million, for those flights.

Vertol canceled the Delaware flight at the last minute, despite recruiting several dozen asylum seekers, putting them up in motels and paying their expenses. There is no indication that the flight to Illinois was ever scheduled.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to questions from the Miami Herald about how state money is spent. Neither is FDOT or Vertol.

Vertol has connections at the top of the DeSantis administration. The top DeSantis official who oversaw the migrant flight program, public safety czar Larry Keefe, handled Vertol’s legal work for years. He also served as President Donald Trump’s United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida.

Related: DeSantis’ top aides were deeply involved in the migrant flights

Records show Keefe traveled to San Antonio with Vertol CEO James Montgomerie, as well as Huerta, to arrange the flights.

The listing for the Martha’s Vineyard charters came from an Ohio-based company called Ultimate JetCharters, which has not responded to requests for comment.

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Michael Barfield, director of access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, questioned the oversight and costs of the migrant flight program.

“They had some hotel rooms, some McDonald’s gift certificates that they handed out like candy, what they paid to Perla and the others. How much could that add up to?” said Barfield, whose organization has sued the state to obtain records on migrant flights. “You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees that… have been pocketed without rendering any service. This is taxpayer money.”

In. On October 9, the Herald requested records showing a detailed breakdown of Vertol’s spending. The request remains unfulfilled.

The state has budgeted a total of $12 million for its immigrant resettlement program.

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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