“Very good,” Uthmeier texted. “You have my full support. Call anytime.
“Copy. Thanks,” Keefe replied.
On the day of the first flight from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Keefe texted Uthmeier: “Wheels high” and “Should be in touch again around 11:00 a.m. EST.”
The documents provide the clearest picture yet of the extent to which senior DeSantis officials were involved in the planning and execution of the theft. They include nearly 150 pages of documents such as text messages, photos of migrants boarding private planes and partially redacted Department of Homeland Security waivers signed by migrants taking the flights. The names of individual migrants are obscured on the waiver documents, but most list Venezuela as their country of origin.
DeSantis for nearly a year had championed the program and convinced the Republican-led Legislature to grant him $12 million in seed funding for the overall migrant transportation effort.
DeSantis’ leak has sparked outrage among Democrats, who have accused DeSantis of human trafficking and using vulnerable asylum seekers as political paraphernalia. Republicans, however, applauded DeSantis, saying he drew attention to the sharp rise in immigration along the southern border.
The DeSantis administration is facing several lawsuits regarding the program, including one filed last Monday by the Florida Center for Government Accountability alleging that DeSantis was not releasing documents related to the thefts. The Treasury Department’s watchdog is examining whether the Florida’s governor improperly used money tied to federal Covid-19 relief funds to pay for the flights while a Texas sheriff is investigating whether the thefts broke laws.
DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said Saturday that the release of documents was unrelated to the Florida Center for Government Accountability lawsuit, but rather part of “ongoing records requests.” He did not respond to questions about other aspects of the flight or the recordings themselves.
Michael Barfield, director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, called the publication “fragmentary.”
“The Governor’s Office continues to play fast and loose with the right of Florida citizens to know what their government is doing,” he said in a statement. “These records should have been produced within a day or two of the initial request. Instead, 25 days later, we continue to get a fragmented release of the recordings.
Text messages between Keefe and Uthmeier on September 5 also indicate that Texas officials were aware of the Florida program and knew the flights were coming.
“TX is aware of Dash, FYI,” Uthmeier wrote on Sept. 5. “No worries here.”
“Texas aware and good with Dash?” Keefe responds. “Please confirm.”
“Call when it’s convenient for you,” Uthmeier replied.
It’s unclear who or what the “dash” is and questions to DeSantis’ office for clarification have not been returned.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he was not involved in DeSantis’ flights from his state to Martha’s Vineyard. But his administration ferried thousands of migrants from the southern border to blue strongholds including New York and Chicago. Abbott also bussed dozens of migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, DC. His office did not respond to requests for comment on messages from Texas that Texas was “aware” of a version of Florida’s plans.
While DeSantis executed just one transport, his administration on Sept. 20 appeared to stage another migrant flight, this time to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, which has been reported for the first time by the Miami Herald.
Records from the time showed a flight operated by the same provider as the Martha’s Vineyard flights was heading to Nashville and then New Jersey, triggering immigration groups in those cities to rush to the airport to provide all the services that migrants might need. Flight records at the time showed that a flight operated by the same provider as Martha’s Vineyard flights was heading to Delaware.
That flight, however, was cancelled, stranding migrants who had been recruited for the stranded flight in Texas. The Miami Herald reported that a woman identified as “Perla” was the one who showed up at a San Antonio hotel to recruit them for the robberies, and eventually later abruptly informed them of her cancellation. The The New York Times identified “Perla” as Perla Huerta, a military veteran who spent two decades in the United States Army.
“Perla” also appears in screenshots of What’s App messages that were sent to Keefe included in the most recent collection of published documents.
“They are going to hate me today, but this opportunity, no one would have given them,” read a message, written in Spanish, in response to a message that directly referred to “Perla”.
In another post, at least one migrant appeared to express his gratitude for being part of the program, saying he felt like he had been placed in a “bed of gold”.
Keefe was hired by DeSantis in September 2021 to become Florida’s first-ever public safety czar, a position DeSantis immediately defined as focusing on illegal immigration.
Keefe was previously a named partner at an Okaloosa County law firm that is one of the largest in the area and has on several occasions represented Vertol Systems, the vendor the DeSantis administration has so far paid $1. $.5 million related to the migrant flight program.
Gary Fineout contributed to this story.