Florida legislator sues DeSantis claiming illegal use of state funds for migrant relocation

Sergio Bustos

A Democratic Florida state senator filed suit Thursday to stop Gov. Ron DeSantis from using state funds to cover the cost of his controversial migrant relocation program, saying the Florida Legislature did not give him the authority to use the money to transport migrants from other states.

In his 15-page lawsuit, filed late Thursday in Leon County Circuit Court, state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, alleges the DeSantis administration failed to meet the requirements set by the Florida Legislature to only transport “unauthorized aliens” from within the state. The suit also alleges that the Florida Department of Transportation failed to obtain at least two bids from potentivendors to provide the migrant transportation services.

Named as defendants are DeSantis, Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis and Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared W. Perdue.

“The state is completely violating the law,” Pizzo told NBC News. “They haven’t provided any scintilla of evidence for how this is legal.”

In a statement to media outlets on Thursday night, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said “Senator Pizzo never misses an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame and is challenging an action on an appropriation he voted for.”

Money for the migrant relocation program was included as part of the state's massive $109 billion budget, which was unanimously approved by the Florida Senate. 

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The suit comes more than a week after DeSantis, who is widely considered a top 2024 Republican presidential candidate, drew national media attention when he ordered two planeloads of nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants to be flown from Texas to the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard, with a fueling stop in northwest Florida.

The move angered Democrats, immigrant advocates and others who said the Republican governor was using migrants as “political pawns. DeSantis said he took the action to call attention to President Biden’s “reckless” border security policies and steer undocumented immigrants away from Florida.

DeSantis did not notify any local or federal authorities about the migrant flights to Massachusetts.

The Venezuelan migrants are not here illegally because they were "paroled" into the U.S. as asylum seekers and allowed to remain pending the outcome of their cases in immigration court.

DeSantis said the state hired a contractor in south Texas to seek out migrants who may be headed to Florida. He has said he wants to identify more migrants in Texas and take them to “sanctuary jurisdictions" around the country. 

At a news conference in Miami, DeSantis said his migrant relocation program is the "most effective" way to steer asylum seekers and other migrants away from Florida. 

The price tag for the Massachusetts flights was initially put at $615,000, but the latest state records show that Florida paid another $950,000 to the Vertol Systems Company, a Destin, Fla.-based aviation firm, bringing the total spent so far to more than $1.5 million to move nearly 50 migrants. 

The DeSantis administration has not publicly released the contract with Vertol Systems.

The Miami Herald reported Thursday that Larry Keefe, who DeSantis appointed as the state’s “public safety czar” to oversee the governor’s anti-immigration programs, worked for Vertol Systems as legal counsel. The newspaper reported that he represented the firm in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017.

DeSantis had sought $8 million from the GOP-dominated Legislature for his migrant relocation program, but legislators boosted his request to $12 million to ship undocumented migrants out of the state. The funds are administered through the state Department of Transportation.

The $12 million money comes from interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. It provided $350 billion to state and local governments, which the U.S. Treasury said is “to support their response to and recovery from the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

State Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, who is running for Congress against GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, questioned DeSantis administration officials during debate in the 2022 legislative session over the migrant relocation program.

DeSantis migrant relocation under fire 

State Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, who is running for Congress against GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, questioned DeSantis administration officials during debate in the 2022 legislative session over the migrant relocation program.

This week, she told reporters that the money is being wrongly used because it comes from interest earned from federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds and that the Venezuelan migrants are not undocumented immigrants because they applied for asylum.

“There are a lot of questions and I do believe that the federal government needs to look into this because it's completely unacceptable … that [funds] came from the federal government to help Floridians through COVID,” she said.

She suggested DeSantis may have ordered the planes carrying the Venezuelan migrants to stop in Crestview, Fla., in northwest Florida to make the claim the migrants were physically in the state.

“Maybe that's the reason they landed in Florida, because that's a way to cover that the budget says they have to come from Florida," she said.

Legal challenges loom

Other legal actions have emerged in recent days in connection with the Venezuelans flown to Martha's Vineyard, who are being temporarily housed at a military base in Cape Cod.

A federal class action lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Boston on behalf of the migrants that accuses the DeSantis administration of deploying a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport them. 

On Monday, Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar announced his agency had opened an investigation into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” to board flights from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard.

Sergio Bustos is Enterprise/Politics Editor for Florida's Gannett/USA Today Network. He's based in South Florida. Email: floridapolitics@gannett.com