The air charter company Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration hired for his migrant-moving program has contributed big money to some top allies of the governor and was once legally represented by Rep. Matt Gaetz and his former partner, who is now Florida's “public safety czar” in charge of immigration policy.
DeSantis’ administration has refused to release a copy of the $12 million contract with Vertol Systems Company Inc. for its role in administering the “unauthorized alien” program — which state Democrats sought to block with a lawsuit Thursday — nor will the governor’s office comment on the nearly $1.6 million the company has received to send migrants to so-called sanctuary cities that welcome immigrants.
Gaetz, who managed DeSantis' transition team in 2018, would not comment for this article, nor would his former law partner, Florida’s public safety coordinator Larry Keefe, who represented Vertol in at least one civil lawsuit in 2017, according to court records from Okaloosa County, Florida.
In Vertol's only known case of relocating migrants, the company received an initial $615,000 last week and recruited almost 50 destitute asylum-seeking Venezuelan migrants in San Antonio, gave them food and at least one night’s hotel stay, and then flew them to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, as part of DeSantis’ effort to highlight the toll of illegal immigration. Lawyers for the migrants say they were tricked by false promises and are suing.
On Tuesday, the company was planning to fly migrants to a Delaware airport near President Joe Biden’s beach home, but the flight was inexplicably scrapped after the state gave Vertol another $950,000.
But the state budget authorizing the program specifies that “unauthorized aliens” are supposed to be flown from “this state” of Florida — not any other state — and Republicans who crafted the program this year said publicly that Venezuelans seeking asylum are not considered “unauthorized aliens” because they're allowed to be in this country.
The DeSantis administration's refusal to provide public records about the contract contrasts with his pledge to operate government with "the utmost transparency and accountability" before taking office in 2019, when he also said he would "drain the swamp" in Tallahassee and stop the "dominance" of special interests.
“The state is completely violating the law. They haven’t provided any scintilla of evidence for how this is legal,” said state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat who is leading the lawsuit to block payments to the company.
“I want to know who was asleep at the switch on the state side when someone said, ‘Let’s go to San Antonio; let’s spend our money there,’ when they booked the La Quinta hotel in San Antonio. Who thought that was legal?” Pizzo said. “I would like to know — and the public has the right to know — who negotiated this contract and what it says.”
When an NBC News reporter called Vertol Systems Company for comment, an operator hung up.
Keefe, DeSantis’ safety coordinator and a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, is involved with the program and made clear when he was appointed that immigration was a top mandate.
“As a former U.S. attorney, I saw illegal aliens that would get deported and come back, and then get deported and come back in an endless cycle,” Keefe said after DeSantis named him the public safety "czar" last year, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “The states, including Florida, bear the brunt of this cycle.”
Immigration has been a top concern of DeSantis and led to the eventual ouster of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's commissioner, Rick Swearingen, earlier this year, according to three knowledgeable sources who spoke candidly after being granted anonymity. The commissioner had repeatedly questioned DeSantis' desire to relocate migrants to other states and to use state police resources to track so-called ghost flights, in which federal authorities flew unaccompanied minor migrants to immigration facilities in states like Florida without giving state officials notice, the sources said. Swearingen did not return calls or texts for comment.
Vertol is based in the Florida Panhandle city of Destin, in Gaetz’s congressional district, and near Keefe’s home city as well.
State and federal campaign finance data show Vertol contributed $2,500 to the North Florida Neighbors super PAC backing Gaetz’s first congressional bid in 2016. The following year, Vertol contributed $15,000 to then-Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s Watchdog PAC for his gubernatorial bid at a fundraiser organized by Gaetz. Corcoran went on to serve as DeSantis’ education secretary.
A source familiar with fundraiser said the money was packaged by politically influential Panhandle developer Jay Odom, who is the registered agent for an aviation company connected to Vertol, according to state business records.
Odom, who did not return a call for comment, was convicted and imprisoned for six months in 2013 for his role in an illegal campaign finance scheme tied to Republican Mike Huckabee’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. Odom was arrested in yet another alleged crime — along with House Speaker Ray Sansom in 2009 — over state funds to build him an airport hangar, but the two men were acquitted at trial, according to a Northwest Florida Daily News article concerning a political clash between Odom and Gaetz.
After DeSantis was elected, Vertol in 2019 contributed another $10,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, which is ultimately controlled by the governor.
And Vertol contributed another $1,000 in June to state Rep. Jay Trumbull Jr.’s state Senate campaign. Trumbull, who hails from Panama City, near Vertol's home base in Destin, couldn't be reached for comment. His father, Jay Trumbull Sr., had been appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Transportation Commission, which oversees the Florida Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of the Vertol contract. The elder Trumbull told The Intercept he resigned from the commission in June.
Aside from the Florida Democrats’ pending lawsuit and the separate suit against DeSantis from the migrants he flew to Martha's Vineyard, the Texas Democratic sheriff who represents the San Antonio area pledged investigate the Florida program in his jurisdiction, saying there was evidence of fraud. DeSantis has denied wrongdoing, called on President Joe Biden to reauthorize former President Donald Trump's restrictionist immigration policies and pledged Tuesday that the state would continue with the program because the nation is again discussing the southern border.
“It’s not just flights, you know," he said. "We have ground, we have other things that we can do. And I’ll tell you this, it’s already made more of an impact than anyone thought it could possibly make. But we’re going to continue to make more of an impact."
"What we’re doing is not the ultimate solution," he continued. "I think it’s opening people’s eyes to the solution, which is, let’s have a secure border. Let’s have remain in Mexico. Let’s take the cartels seriously. And let’s get with the program here. What they have been doing for a year and a half or more than that is basically ignoring that the problem exists.”