Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration told at least one contractor vying for a bid to transport immigrants out of the state that the job involved sending “criminals” to Massachusetts, according to an interview with the contractor and documents obtained by The Boston Globe.
The documents were released Friday evening in response to public records requests submitted by the Globe and other outlets after the DeSantis administration flew approximately 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last month.
They include a request for bids from the government of Florida seeking vendors to transport migrants out of the state, as well as the responses of companies vying for the job. One bid was submitted by a Florida firm, Gun Girls Procurement Solutions Inc. In an interview, Susan Kushlin, the company’s president, said that an official at the Florida Department of Transportation told her the job entailed transporting nonviolent criminals who were unauthorized immigrants to Massachusetts.
Gun Girls quoted a price of $26,000 to transport five people, as well as a bilingual security officer, to Massachusetts, according to the documents. Kushlin said five was a minimum. Ultimately, the job could have entailed transporting up to 20 prisoners, she said she was told.
The Martha’s Vineyard migrants were not criminals — most were seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing Venezuela.
Kushlin emphasized that her company had “nothing to do” with the Martha’s Vineyard transport. “I would never do anything that wasn’t proper and appropriate,” she said. “We do everything by the book.”
She described her company as a “woman-owned company for prisoner transport in the state of Florida.”
Kushlin said she was told that the nonviolent criminals would have agreed ahead of time to go to Massachusetts. She said she was never told what the final destination in Massachusetts would be.
“I didn’t get that far,” she said. She has been waiting for several months to receive a definitive response about her bid from the state.
Originally, the flight was meant to take place during the second week of August, according to the bid. Kushlin said she didn’t know if officials in Massachusetts had been notified of the proposed transport of prisoners.
A spokesperson for Governor Charlie Baker said his office had no knowledge of the proposed transport of prisoners.
Spokespeople for DeSantis, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the Florida Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment Friday evening.
The documents reveal that the Florida Department of Transportation’s general counsel began discussions with potential vendors in July.
According to the documents, the state told bidders their role would be to “implement and manage a program to relocate out of the State of Florida foreign nationals who are not lawfully present in the United States” and “assist in the voluntary relocation of Unauthorized Aliens who are found in Florida and have agreed to be relocated to another state in the United States or the District of Columbia.”
Wheels Up, a New York-based charter jet company cofounded by Miami entrepreneur Justin Firestone, also communicated with the Florida Department of Transportation in July, and had sent a brochure with pricing options, the documents show.
Ultimately, the state of Florida hired Destin-based Vertol Systems Co., an aviation company primarily in the business of providing helicopter service and training pilots for the military, to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
According to the documents, Vertol chief executive James L. Montgomerie provided quotes for flights from Crestview, Fla., to Boston and Los Angeles.
The state has so far paid Vertol Systems more than $1.56 million for its involvement in transporting the migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last month.
The Miami Herald reported that Larry Keefe, the state’s “public safety czar,” had represented Vertol Systems in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017 when he was a private attorney.
Since the arrival of the migrants on Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14, the DeSantis administration has faced legal questions about the operation. Some of the migrants sued DeSantis and others involved in the relocation, alleging the defendants defrauded them by making false claims about where they were going and the benefits — including money and jobs — they would receive upon arrival.
State Senator Jason Pizzo, a south Florida Democrat, also sued DeSantis, alleging the relocation violated state law, since the migrants were not moved from Florida, but from Texas. The funding the DeSantis administration used for the operation was allocated specifically to transport “unauthorized aliens from this state.”
In San Antonio, Sheriff Javier Salazar has also launched an investigation to see if any laws were broken there. The migrants had crossed the US border in Texas before meeting a woman who sources say the sheriff’s department has identified as Perla Huerta, a former Army counterintelligence specialist, who recruited them for the flights with false promises, the migrants and their lawyers have alleged.
On Sept. 16, the Baker administration transported the migrants from Martha’s Vineyard to a military base on Cape Cod where many of them stayed for the next three weeks. As of Friday, all of the migrants had left the base and resettled, at least temporarily, in new housing on the mainland and back on Martha’s Vineyard.
Kushlin, who repeatedly distanced herself from the Martha’s Vineyard operation, said she believed the job she bid for was a legitimate activity for the government and Gun Girls.
“We’re happy to transport them if it’s done legally and correctly,” she said.