Florida’s September mission to transport migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard has prompted a criminal probe, legal lawsuits, and charges that Gov. Ron DeSantis exploited the roughly 50 migrants as political pawns.
Now, a media investigation raises questions as to whether state funds were spent properly; the state has refused to answer these questions.
For instance, one of the three companies the state claimed submitted quotes for the project denied doing so to Bulletin News.
And the Bulletin News Investigators have obtained a document that the state has withheld from the public: a “request for quotes” for “an air transportation company to provide chartered flight services” that was sent to the eventual winning contractor 28 hours before the deadline for the company’s response.
This contractor, Vertol Systems Firm of Destin, had intimate ties to the DeSantis administration official who managed the state missions, Larry Keefe, an attorney who represented the company for numerous years.
Evidence In The Language?
The state budget for the fiscal year 2022-23 enabled the Florida Department of Transportation to spend up to $12 million on contracts to transfer “unauthorized immigrants from this state” after obtaining “at least two bids.”
Many of the migrants, however, had documents indicating they had been released on their own recognizance after presenting themselves to Texas immigration officials at the US-Mexico border. Their attorneys assert that they were permitted to be in the United States.
And they did not depart “from this state,” as specified in the budget text, but instead boarded two leased planes in Texas, where they were recruited by Vertol employees.
According to state records, it was paid $1.56 million in advance by the state to perform three migrant relocations, but only the Martha’s Vineyard operation occurred. The two others, to Delaware and Illinois, have not taken place.
According to the records released thus far, it is unclear whether two companies responded to either of FDOT’s two “requests for quote” (RFQs): the one they have not released publicly that was sent to Vertol on August 1 with a deadline of August 2; and an earlier one with a deadline of July 20.
One business replied directly to the previous RFQ, which sought “a transportation management company” to “create and oversee” the relocation program, and the state did make that RFQ public. It was replied to at some time by Gun Girls Inc. of Palm Beach Gardens, but Vertol has not yet responded to this RFQ, according to the available data.
Emails reveal The FDOT’s general counsel and Vertol’s CEO James Montgomerie first addressed the operation and how charter flights are priced on July 26, over a week after the first deadline for quotations had passed.
Lacking Third Company Bid
When FDOT and the governor’s office disclosed data labeled “FDOT RELOCATION PROGRAM” on October 7, they named three firms that had offered quotes: Vertol, Gun Girls, and Wheels Up, a New York-based company that caters to business and luxury tourists wanting private jet travel.
The state said that Wheels Up provided an “air quotation” in response to a request for bids. However, a Wheels Up spokeswoman told media Investigators that the company never filed a response.
According to the archives, it did give the state a pamphlet outlining its services. But it concludes the discussion.
And, according to a person familiar with the state’s dealings with the firm, Wheels Up was not given a request for quotations until August 5, three days after the time had passed for it to answer, and it did not respond.
While it is unclear, based on the patchwork of partial information the state has disclosed so far, if it received two quotations for either of the RFQs it issued, it is certain that the state’s assertion that three firms submitted bids is false.
FDOT refused to address comprehensive questions on the time and type of the quotes it did get, stating simply that there were “several” quotes; the governor’s office has not answered a number of inquiries regarding the quotes and the relocation program.
A Strange Award
The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FCGA), a nonprofit that advocates government accountability and openness, is suing FDOT and Vertol. The complaint alleges that both defendants are illegally suppressing public data pertaining to the September 14 flights from Texas, via Crestview near Vertol’s headquarters, and on to Massachusetts.
One document it seeks is the RFP with the August 2 deadline, which was attached to an email sent by FDOT to Vertol on August 1. The document itself, however, was discovered by media Investigators after neither Vertol nor the state had disclosed it.
Michael Barfield, the FCGA’s director of public access, said that the paper should have been disclosed in response to his and others’ requests for public documents.
“They were responding to this paper,” Barfield stated, referring to Vertol’s August 2 answer to FDOT’s August 1 RFQ. “I said it (during last week’s testimony at a court hearing on the case) since I do not own that document to this day.”
According to the information supplied, it is unclear if anybody other than Vertol reacted. Nor has a contract been disclosed between Vertol and the state, therefore it is uncertain if it is more compatible with the first or second RFQ.
Contrary to the first RFQ, the second does not state that the program’s objective is to “relocate unlawful immigrants out of the state of Florida.”
Barfield said, “No, it does not seem that FDOT received several quotes in response to the RFQ based on the information that has been disclosed. And I was aware that something was unusual, but I did not know what.”
With his current knowledge, he said, “It seems there was no bidding procedure. This contract to provide services to a former customer of Larry Keefe, Vertol, seems to have been awarded predetermined.
Less than a week before Keefe and Montgomerie arrived in Crestview on one of the aircraft carrying migrants en route to Martha’s Vineyard on September 14, they had a Delaware mission in mind. Montgomerie texted Keefe Vertol on September 9 that he “could easily handle Delaware.”
Texts reveal that on September 15, Keefe, who lives near Montgomerie and the Vertol headquarters in Okaloosa County, arrived early for a meeting with Montgomerie.
“May I enter your building now, despite my early arrival?” At 10:22 a.m. on that Thursday, Keefe texted Montgomerie.
Less than six hours later, Montgomerie sent FDOT an email requesting the removal of two further migrants to Delaware and Illinois at a cost of $950,000.
The next Monday, September 19, according to state records, the state advanced $950,000 to Vertol for these missions, none of which have transpired.