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Ron DeSantis chartered migrant flights from GOP donor, report finds


One week before two flights with mostly Venezeulan migrants landed unannounced on Martha’s Vineyard after leaving San Antonio, Florida’s Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to an aviation firm.

State records show that the payment on 8 September was for “RELOCATION PROGRAM OF UNAUTHORIZED ALIENS”.

Records also show that the state paid the same company, Vertol Systems Company Inc, another $950,000, for the same reason, on 19 September, as The Independent previously reported.

In total, the company has received more than $1.56m from Governor Ron DeSantis’s $12m state-funded plan to ship migrants to Democratic states and cities, widely derided as a political stunt to protest Presdent Joe Biden and in an attempt to paint “sanctuaries” as hypocritical.

But Vertol Systems Company Inc and its president have also contributed thousands of dollars to Republican officials in Florida, according to state campaign finance records first reported by The Intercept.

Florida records show that a GOP state lawmaker – whose father sits on the Florida Transportation Commission, which oversees the state’s Transportation Department – received $1,000 from Vertol Systems in June.

Jay Trumbull Jr is not the only GOP recipient of campaign donations from the company.

In 2016, Vertol Systems also contributed $2,500 to a political action committee associated with US Rep Matt Gaetz, according to federal campaign finance records.

Vertol’s president and CEO James Montgomerie also donated $5,000 to Mr Gaetz’s affiliated PAC in 2017, campaign finance records show.

Mr Trumbull’s father, Jay Trumbull Sr, also donated $2,500 to Governor DeSantis’s 2018 campaign for governor, and a PAC associated with his company Trumbull Water Services of Northwest Florida gave $10,000 to the political action committee associated with the governor’s re-election campaign.

The Independent’s requests for comment to Vertol Systems – including how the company uses state funds – have not been returned. Its website appeared to be taken offline several days ago.

A $12m item in Florida’s state budget – tucked into page 494 of a 518-page document – is supported by “interest earnings associated with the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund,” a part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Biden, with universal GOP opposition in Congress.

The governor himself also criticised the American Rescue Plan as “designed basically to bail out the poorly governed states” despite relying on state-level aid inside the package.

Roughly $350bn in state funding in the American Rescue Plan is intended to support state and local pandemic relief efforts and public health response and to keep government services running against economic strain.

Florida’s budget asserts that the state Department of Transportation “may, upon the receipt of at least two quotes, negotiate and enter into contracts with private parties, including common carriers, to implement the program” and “may enter into agreements with any applicable federal agency to implement the program.”

During legislative debate on the budget earlier this year, Florida Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the plan was even legal.

In a letter to Republican leadership on 19 September, Florida Democratic lawmakers demanded their support to stop the “inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars before it occurs again.”

“This use of state funds is not what was intended or described in law, nor was it what was discussed in debate,” legislators⁩ Evan Jenne and ⁦Fentrice Driskell wrote.

Governor DeSantis and his aide and campaign have repeatedly defended the flights and suggested that there could be others.

At a news conference on 16 September, the governor said the Martha’s Vineyard flights are “just the beginning” of his plans.

“We’ve got an infrastructure in place now. There’s going to be a lot more that’s happening,” he said.

“The legislature gave me $12m,” he added. “We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida.”

The migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were not in Florida but in the San Antonio, Texas, area, where they were recently processed and released by immigration authorities while waiting for their asylum claim cases to be brought before a judge.

Civil rights attorneys in Massachusetts representing three of the migrants have filed a federal class action lawsuit against the DeSantis administration, alleging a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport a group of people, including families with small children, as part of a political stunt.

The lawsuit alleges the governor, members of his administration and unnamed defendants in San Antonion worked to coerce recently released immigrants to board flights with false promises of job opportunities and financial assistance, among other benefits. They ultimately landed on the island with only volunteered support from local groups and emergency assistance from state agencies before they were transferred to a larger state-run shelter operation on the mainland.

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