TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As soon as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' plans to ship undocumented migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard were executed, controversy swirled around the program.
Investigative reporter Katie LaGrone talked to Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis about why he signed off on using taxpayer money on the flights. She also found new information about the company selected for the program and its history of campaign donations in the state.
"I signed for the authorization for those flights to take place, that’s on the state's checkbook," Patronis, a staunch supporter of DeSantis, said.
Patronis said it was a simple decision to authorize the money for the operation to fly approximately 50 undocumented migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard earlier this month.
"It was easy for me. For the previous two years, this administration, in the dark of night, was shipping illegal immigrants to four corners of the United States, including the State of Florida, and just releasing them. Turnabout is fair play. We did the exact same thing that the federal government was already doing," Patronis said.
To date, state records show Florida has paid more than $1.5 million dollars to Vertol Systems Company Inc. for the "relocation program of unauthorized aliens."
The Oregon-based company has a P.O. Box in Destin, Florida, its website showed last week. The company describes itself as providing aircraft equipment and services. CFO Patronis said the company also operates out of Crestview, Florida, where two flights transporting Venezuelan migrants stopped on the way to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14.
Vertol Systems’ website has since been taken down and the head of the company has not responded to multiple attempts to reach him.
While DeSantis office has yet to explain Vertol's exact role in the migrant flights last week, Patronis told us what he thinks Florida paid the company for.
"They're just the equipment owner operator. I don't think there was anything else other more than that. But again, I'm not personally familiar with their operations or their company, that’s just my understanding," Patronis said.
The state CFO has signed off on two separate six-figure payments to the company this month including a $950,000 payment made to Vertol Systems on Sept. 19. The first payment of $615,000 was made to the company on Sept. 8, six days before the migrants were dropped off at Martha's Vineyard.
Campaign finance records show Vertol systems has also logged thousands in political campaign dollars in Florida with contributions totaling $26,000 to Florida Republicans since 2017.
The contributions include a $10,000 donation to the Republican Party a few years ago and a $1,000 donation this past June to FL Representative Jay Trumbull of Panama City. Trumbull is running for State Senate and is the current Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
"It seems like the governor is not only attacking immigrants once again, but he's also leveraging conservative donors to do his bidding by giving them public money,” said Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents Orlando.
Eskamani is among Democratic state lawmakers who are attacking the governor over the migrant flights. They’re also defending their votes to approve the state budget that includes $12 million to "facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida."
That money stems from interest earned on federal COVID relief dollars allocated to Florida.
Democratic lawmakers are also questioning the governor's legal ground to spend Florida dollars on refugees in Texas who are legally seeking asylum in the United States.
"We were told that this money would only be used in a voluntary basis and only impact individuals who were in Florida," Eskamani said.
"A vote for the budget is not a carte blanche and just approval for the governor to do whatever he wants and to go beyond the law as it was intended," state Rep. Fentrice Driskell said recently during a Zoom meeting hosted by Democratic lawmakers in response to the migrant flights.
For his part, DeSantis is undaunted by the controversy and has vowed to keep moving forward with the program at all costs.
"I got $12 million for us to use and we're going to use it, and you're going to see more and more. I'm going to make sure that we exhaust all those funds," DeSantis said recently about his new immigrant relocation program.