DeSantis ‘Czar' Used Alias, Private Email As Contractor Sought Migrant Flights' Deal

After claiming in court all requested records were provided, the state has released emails from a Gmail account used by “public safety czar” Larry Keefe, revealing backchannel communications between him and his former client, Vertol Systems, as the company was seeking the migrant relocation contract

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As his former client was seeking the contract to relocate migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “public safety czar” gave Vertol Systems Company CEO James Montgomerie a private “email channel to use,” according to records released Thursday by the governor’s office.

Call sign: Heat 19.

Alias: Clarice Starling.

For three weeks after that Aug. 26 instruction, records show the two men exchanged invoice and proposal language as Vertol was about to win a contract that has so far paid it more than $1.5 million. None of that official state business was included in any of Larry Keefe’s state email records released so far.

Last month, Montgomerie testified in a lawsuit seeking all public records that his company had turned over “every single” record. But the company did not produce the emails sent to Montgomerie’s AOL account from “Clarice Starling,” Keefe’s Gmail alias, a nod to the FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster in the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

“The political caper continues unabated and that confirms suspicions that we had not received all the records,” said Michael Barfield, public access director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, which is suing the state and Vertol to obtain migrant relocation records. The latest batch was released to the FCGA and the public Thursday after the governor’s office said it was previously “unaware of this email address belonging to Mr. Keefe.”

But Vertol was aware of it.

When questioned under oath about a “draft” referenced in a Sept.1 text message between him and Keefe, Montgomerie testified it was a draft he had sent Keefe of the consent form the migrants were asked to sign before being flown to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14.

But an attachment to the previously undisclosed email shows that -- 45 minutes before Montgomerie’s “draft sent” text -- Montgomerie sent Keefe a draft of what would become Vertol’s proposal to FDOT to run the relocation program.

That draft contained eight paragraphs that were nearly identical to language Keefe had sent Montgomerie from the Gmail account two days earlier – language that also wound up in the proposal Vertol sent to FDOT on Sept. 2.

The latest revelations come as the state and the contractor are accused in lawsuits of violating the migrants’ civil rights and concealing public records, allegations they deny.

By various emails, NBC 6 Friday asked Keefe, who had represented Vertol for years in the 2010s, why he was using his until-now secret Clarice Starling email to communicate with Montgomerie as he prepared the proposal for FDOT. He did not respond to that email, or to any other calls and other inquiries from NBC 6 Investigators over recent months.

NBC 6 also emailed Montgomerie, asking if – in light of the draft proposal now discovered in the Sept. 1 email – he wished to amend or stand by his sworn testimony that he had sent a draft of a consent form that afternoon. He has not responded to that or other inquiries over the months about how his company got the contract overseen by its former lawyer, Keefe.

And, as it has in the past, the state is not answering questions about whether any of these and other actions during the procurement process suggest a violation of law or rule, and, if so, whether FDOT would seek an investigation by law enforcement, inspectors general or others.

But in its lawsuit, which led to the production of these emails and other records, the Florida Center for Government Accountability Friday accused Montgomerie of giving “false testimony under oath” and is requesting the judge overseeing the case reopen the evidentiary hearing so Montgomerie can be questioned again.

“It was not the volunteer consent form that he told the judge that it was,” Barfield said, adding, “We now know that’s simply not true.” 

As for Keefe’s previously secret backchannel communication with his former client, “I can’t tell if he’s working for Vertol still or the State of Florida,” Barfield said. “Mr. Keefe, who works for the governor’s office but was previously the attorney for Vertol, has a long relationship with him, is drafting the quote, the language for the bid, to submit to the DOT. We don’t think that that that’s proper,” suggesting instead “an ethical violation of the law.”

Records released by the state show Keefe and Montgomerie called or texted each other 33 times over the three days between when Montgomerie sent Keefe the contract proposal draft and FDOT and Vertol reached an agreement in principle.

“We think the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation and the governor’s office should immediately look into these issues regarding the relationship between Mr. Keefe and Mr. Montgomerie, his prior representation of the company,” Barfield continued.

Keefe is a former Trump-appointed US Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, hired last year by DeSantis to, among other things, run DeSantis’ migrant relocation program.

According to state records, Vertol was paid $615,000 in advance for transporting nearly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard and has received another $950,000 for two missions to Delaware and Illinois that have not yet occurred.

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of some of the migrants alleges DeSantis, Keefe, Vertol and others “conspired to dupe (migrants) into a political stunt … (a) cruel photo opportunity … to use political fervor over immigration to boost defendant DeSantis’ national profile.”

DeSantis, who says his program was designed to raise awareness about the border crisis, won re-election last month by 19 points and several polls have him leading ex-president Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

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