Top DeSantis' Official Traveled to Texas Ahead of Migrant Flights

Records show the state of Florida has paid more the $1.5 million to a contractor for two trips: one completed to Massachusetts and one canceled aimed for Delaware.

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Documents released by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration through public records requests show the state’s public safety czar was on the ground in Texas ahead of the flights which took around 50 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in September.

The records are part of 87 pages of documents and four cellphone videos released Monday night showing the migrants boarding the planes, including several children. Text messages show DeSantis’ public safety czar Larry Keefe was with former intelligence officer Perla Huerta as she worked to recruit migrants for the trips. The Bexar County Sheriff is currently investigating the recruitment of the migrants and whether they were illegally misled about the flights. NBC 6 Investigators emailed and called Huerta but have not received a response.

Records show the state of Florida has paid more the $1.5 million to a contractor for the relocation program. It’s part of $12 million approved by lawmakers to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from the state (Florida).”  But as NBC 6 Investigators reported before the state may have violated state law and contracting guidelines since the migrants were not found in Florida. In court filings and statements, the migrants’ attorneys also argued they are authorized because many are seeking asylum under federal law.

About a month before the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, text messages show Florida officials were seeking information on the ongoing Texas relocation program called Operation Lone Star. Text messages describe a meeting between Keefe, Huerta, officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Texas’s Operation Lone Star began in March 2021. Several states, including Florida, have sent troopers to help along the Texas-Mexico border and twenty-six governors have formed a task force on the issue. Texas officials told NBC 6 they gave the group of Florida officials a presentation on their much large operation. 

Ericka Miller, the press secretary of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), told NBC 6, “Following these presentations, several, including Florida, reached out to better understand the mission, see how it is being carried out and learn more on efforts they may be able to replicate in their own states. Representatives from Florida visited the Texas border in August to see DPS’ OLS operations firsthand.”

In an email, Seth Christensen with the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) added “TDEM officials were not aware of how Florida law enforcement officials would utilize the information gathered from those conversations.”

Newly obtained records give insight into the planning of Florida's migrant flights, including the involvement of the governor's staff members. NBC 6's Phil Prazan reports

The latest text messages obtained by NBC 6 show Keefe referred the flight contractor to Dave Abrams, an advisor to the governor’s re-election campaign. That contractor later told Keefe the company and the campaign connected. Neither Keefe nor Abrams responded to NBC 6 requests for comment.  

DeSantis and officials with the Florida Department of Transportation have provided limited comment about the migrant flights and did not respond to an NBC 6 request for comment Tuesday about the newly-released records. But on the campaign trail DeSantis touted the program and said he would continue it to draw attention to the number of migrants crossing the southern border.

"The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with everyday is brought to their front door, they all of a sudden go berserk," Gov. DeSantis said at a September press conference.

A lawsuit hoping to stop the program filed by Miami-area State Sen. Jason Pizzo was dismissed Monday by a Leon County Circuit Court Judge on technical grounds. Pizzo plans to amend and refile the lawsuit.

The United States Treasury Inspector General is currently reviewing the Florida program because the money used was generated by interest from Federal COVID-19 response dollars.

The Texas program has transported more than 10,000 migrants from the Texas-Mexico border to Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. Tuesday, Governor Abbott’s office announced they sent their first busload of people to Philadelphia.

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