Questions Swirl Around Records DeSantis Administration Released And Withheld On Migrant Flights – NBC 6 South Florida

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Florida’s mission to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September has spawned a criminal investigation, civil lawsuits and criticism that the nearly 50 migrants were used by Gov. Ron DeSantis as pawns in a political stunt.

Now an NBC 6 investigation raises questions about whether state money has been spent properly – questions the state has refused to answer.

For example, one of three companies the state said submitted quotes for the project denied to NBC 6 it ever submitted a quote.

And the NBC 6 Investigators have obtained a document 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 just 28 hours before the company’s response was due.

That contractor, Vertol Systems Company of Destin, has close connections to the DeSantis administration official who oversaw the missions for the state, Larry Keefe, a lawyer who represented the company over several years.

VIOLATING BUDGET LANGUAGE?

The 2022-23 state budget allowed the Florida Department of Transportation to spend up to $12 million on contracts to transport “unauthorized aliens from this state” after receiving “at least two quotes.”

But records reveal many of the migrants had documentation showing they had been released on recognizance after presenting themselves to immigration authorities at the US-Mexico border in Texas. Their lawyers say they were in fact authorized to be in the United States.

And they didn’t embark on their journey “from this state,” as the budget language stated, but rather boarded two leased jets in Texas, where they were recruited by people working with Vertol.

It has been paid $1.56 million by the state in advance to conduct three migrant relocations, according to state records, but only the Martha’s Vineyard operation went forward. The two others – to Delaware and Illinois — have not occurred.

It’s unclear from the records released so far whether two companies responded to either of the two “requests for quote” – or RFQs – created by FDOT: the one they have not released publicly that was sent to Vertol on August 1 with an August 2 deadline; and an earlier one with a July 20 deadline for quotes to be submitted.

One company directly responded to the earlier RFQ – seeking “a transportation management company” to “implement and manage” the relocation program – and the state did release that RFQ to the public. It was responded to at some point by Gun Girls Inc., of Palm Beach Gardens, but records released so far do not include a response to that RFQ by Vertol.

Emails show FDOT’s general counsel first discussed the operation and how charter flights are priced with Vertol CEO James Montgomerie on July 26, nearly a week after the first deadline for quotes had passed.

NO THIRD COMPANY BID

When FDOT and the governor’s office released records on October 7, titled “FDOT RELOCATION PROGRAM,” it listed three companies as having provided quotes: Vertol, Gun Girls and Wheels Up, a New York company that caters to business and luxury class travelers seeking private air travel.

But a representative of Wheels Up, which the state claimed submitted an “air quote” in response to a request for quotes, tells NBC 6 Investigators it never submitted a response.

The records reveal it did send the state a brochure describing its services. But that is it.

And, NBC 6 has learned, Wheels Up was not sent a request for quotes until Aug. 5, three days after the deadline had passed for it to respond – and it did not respond, according to a source with knowledge of the state’s interactions with the company.

While it is unclear, based on the patchwork of incomplete records the state has released so far, whether it got two quotes for either of the RFQs it sent out, it is clear three companies did not submit quotes, as the state claimed.

FDOT would not answer detailed questions on the timing and nature of the quotes it did receive, saying only there were “multiple” quotes; the governor’s office has not responded to several questions about the quotes and the relocation program.

“A PREORDAINED AWARD”?

FDOT and Vertol are being sued by the Florida Center for Government Accountability (FCGA), a nonprofit that promotes government accountability and transparency. The lawsuit claims both are unlawfully withholding public records involving the Sept. 14 flights from Texas, through Crestview near Vertol’s offices, and eventually to Massachusetts.

One document it is seeking is the RFQ with the August 2 deadline, which was referenced as an attachment to an email sent by FDOT to Vertol on August 1. But the document itself – obtained by NBC 6 Investigators — had not been released by either Vertol or the state.

Given a description of the document by NBC 6, Michael Barfield, the FCGA director of public access, said it should have been released under his and others’ public records requests.

“That is the document they were responding to,” Barfield said, referring to Vertol’s August 2 response to FDOT’s August 1 RFQ. “I noted that (during testimony in a court hearing on the lawsuit last week) because I don’t have that document, even to this date.”

It’s not clear from what has been released that anyone other than Vertol responded to it. Nor has any contract between Vertol and the state been released, so it is unknown to the public whether it is more consistent with the first or second RFQ.

Unlike the first RFQ, the second one does not contain language stating the program is to “relocate out of the State of Florida …. unauthorized aliens.”

Asked if, based on what has been released, it appears FDOT got more than one quote in response to that RFQ, Barfield said, “No, it doesn’t sound like it to me. And I knew something was odd here but I did not know exactly what it was.”

Knowing what he knows now, he said, “It sounds like there was no bidding process. It sounds like there was a preordained award on this contract for services to Larry Keefe’s former client, Vertol.”

THE VERTOL CONNECTION

Keefe, a Trump-appointed former U.S. Attorney for Northern Florida, joined the DeSantis administration as “public safety czar” last year. In the 2010s, he represented Vertol in several cases, both as defense and plaintiff’s counsel.

And in the lead-up to Vertol receiving its $615,000 check in advance a week before the Sept. 14 flights, he and Vertol’s CEO Montgomerie exchanged dozens of texts released by the state involving Vertol’s on-going negotiations with FDOT. Some were sent as both men and Vertol’s lead recruiter, Perla Huerta, were scouting San Antonio for locations to solicit migrants to take the flights to Massachusetts.

On Monday August 22, Vertol obtained a $153,500 quote from a charter jet company to lease two planes for the flights from Texas to Massachusetts, according to records Vertol released in response to the FCGA’s public records lawsuit. That same day Keefe texted Montgomerie: “Told my group we should receive your proposal Wednesday. Will that timeframe work for you?” Montgomerie replied: “Yes sir,” according to text logs released by the state and Vertol.

They make eight phones calls to each other over the next three days and on Friday August 26, after Keefe called Montgomery three times, Keefe texted Montgomerie at 4:16 p.m.: “Do you think it will be today or Monday what we discussed? … My colleagues asked me to inquire so they can remain at the office if today.”

Montgomerie replied, “Monday,” apparently relieving state employees from staying late on a Friday night.

The records show the two talk and text more that weekend and on the afternoon of Monday August 29, Keefe asked Montgomerie: “When may I call re suggested revisions.”

The banter between Keefe and his former client about FDOT’s contract negotiations with Vertol increases as a crucial date nears: Sept. 2, when FDOT and Vertol exchange three proposals, and several emails. At one point, Keefe asked Montgomerie to “keep me apprised of what occurs … so I can stay ahead of things.”

Keefe and Montgomerie sent or received 18 texts and made seven calls to each other that day as the deal was being negotiated – the most communication they had with each other on any one day during the month for which Keefe’s texts and phone records were released.

Barfield, of FCGA, said the communications suggest “Mr. Keefe running interference for Vertol in any difficulties they encountered with FDOT.”

NBC 6 Investigators asked the state if Keefe’s level of involvement with his former client in this process presented the appearance of or an actual conflict of interest. Or if anything that took place could be evidence of a violation of state procurement policies or laws. We received no response.

Montgomerie and Keefe have also not answered emails and phone messages requesting comment.

After a long day of negotiation on Sept. 2, the main points appeared to have been settled and the deal appears sealed on Sept. 6 for $615,000.

FAIR PRICE?

Having received a quote of $153,000 to lease the planes, Vertol could have spent $462,000 on hotel rooms, transportation, food, salaries, legal services, other expenses and overhead before it risked losing money on the $615,000 deal.

And while the records released so far show only Vertol responding directly and in detail to the August 1 RFQ — the one the state has withheld from the public but was obtained by NBC 6 Investigators – the Gun Girls’ response to the first RFQ has enough detail to estimate how much Gun Girls may have charged to transport 50 migrants on the same route Vertol used to send them from Texas through Florida to Martha’s Vineyard: $446,500.

FDOT wound up paying Vertol 38% more than that, $615,000 up front.

The state also released a document from Gun Girls dated Aug. 1 that says it could transport five people from Florida to Massachusetts for $26,000 – which would be $260,000 for 50 people. It’s not clear whether that document is a response to the first or second RFQ. Because it only quotes a trip from Florida, it cannot be compared directly to what Vertol was paid to begin the migrants’ journey in Texas.

Gun Girls declined to comment, except to say they had nothing to do with the flights.

DELAWARE ON THEIR MINDS

Less than a week before Keefe and Montgomerie landed in Crestview on the morning of Sept. 14 on one of the planes with migrants on their way to Martha’s Vineyard, the two men had a Delaware mission on their minds. On Sept. 9, Montgomerie texted Keefe Vertol “could certainly do Delaware.”

On Sept. 15, Keefe, who lives near Montgomerie and the Vertol offices in Okaloosa County, was early for a meeting with Montgomerie, the texts indicate.

“May I enter your building now even though I’m early?” Keefe texted Montgomerie at 10:22 that Thursday morning.

Less than six hours later, Montgomerie sent FDOT an email proposing two more migrant relocations, to Delaware and Illinois, at a cost of $950,000.

By the following Monday, Sept. 19, state records indicate, the state issued a $950,000 advance payment to Vertol for those missions — neither of which have occurred.

Questions Swirl Around Records DeSantis Administration Released And Withheld On Migrant Flights – NBC 6 South Florida

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