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Florida paid company $1.5 million to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard

But the flights were estimated to cost a fraction of that.

Venezuelan migrants gather at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal in Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 16, 2022. The group was transported to Joint Base Cape Cod in Buzzards Bay.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

A Midwest charter flight company quoted a price of $153,000 to fly roughly 50 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard as part of the now-infamous migrant relocation carried out by the state of Florida in September. And yet, Florida has paid out more than $1.56 million to an in-state aviation company overseeing the job, raising the question of what happened to the remaining money.

The quote, requested by the Florida-based Vertol Systems and supplied by Ohio-based Ultimate JetCharters, was included in documents released Friday in response to public records requests submitted by the Globe and other media outlets after Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration flew the migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September as part of his plan to send unassuming migrants to blue states.

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James Montgomerie, who owns Vertol, DeSantis, and the Florida Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for a breakdown of how Vertol would use the remaining money — $1.4 million.

Vertol was one of at least three companies that communicated with the Florida Department of Transportation over the summer about taking part in a state program to relocate people without legal status to another location.

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature approved a $12 million budget item to do just that, paid for by interest earned on funds provided to the state under the federal government’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

DeSantis claimed responsibility for the flights as his way of making a statement on what he has called the Biden administration’s failed immigration and border policies, telling reporters at the time that “[e]very community in America should be sharing in the burdens. It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states.”

Ultimately, the state of Florida hired Montgomerie’s company to carry out the job.

Public records show Florida disbursed $615,000 to Vertol on Sept. 8 for what they called “Project 1″ and $950,000 on Sept. 19 for Projects 2 and 3 — totaling $1.56 million.

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On Sept. 6, Montgomerie had written to Paul Baker, a purchasing administrator at FDOT, with a quote for what he described as “Project 1,” which would entail flying up to 50 passengers to “Massachusetts or other, proximate northeastern state designated by FDOT.”

He wrote that Vertol’s “proposal contemplates the delivery of these Services to FDOT, on an ongoing, month-to-month basis in the form of separate relocation projects,which were later detailed as flights to Delaware and Illinois.

The “[p]roposed services” included, among other things, project management, fuel, and landing fees, in addition to the planes and pilots.

On Sept. 8, the state ordered $615,000 to be paid to Vertol and billed to the Department of Transportation.

The documents made it apparent that Florida had also paid Vertol for flights that have not yet happened.

On Sept. 16, two days after the Venezuelan migrants landed on Martha’s Vineyard, Montgomerie provided a quote for Projects 2 and 3, which would entail flying “approximately 100 or more” people to “Delaware, Illinois, or other States designated by FDOT” before Oct. 3.

The “wrap around” price for these “humanitarian services” would be $950,000, he wrote.

Public records show Florida disbursed $950,000 to Vertol three days later, on Sept. 19.

Vertol later extended the window for Projects 2 and 3 until Dec. 1, according to memos released by the state Department of Transportation. The flights have not yet happened, and Montgomerie did not give a reason for the extension in his communications.

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Florida’s migrant relocation program became the center of a criminal probe, and some of the migrants have sued DeSantis and others involved in the relocation. Their lawyers say their clients were defrauded by false claims about the destinations of their flights and the benefits — including money and jobs — they would receive when they arrived.

Montgomerie was highly involved in the coordination of the effort to fly migrants to Massachusetts, often communicating directly with DeSantis’ public safety czar, Larry Keefe, according to text messages previously obtained by the Globe.

Keefe represented Vertol Systems in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017, when he was a private attorney, according to reporting from the Miami Herald.

The two men discussed travel logistics and communications with the Florida Department of Transportation, messaging with Signal, an encrypted messaging app.

Days before the flight, Montgomerie told Keefe that they had secured 34 migrants and “will be at 50 by Tuesday, no problem.”

And on Sept. 14, 49 migrants landed on the Massachusetts island without knowing where they were. Officials on the island, who had not received any notice of the flights, were just as surprised as the migrants.

Locals on the Vineyard sprung into action, creating makeshift housing in St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, and arranging for last-minute catering orders and medical services. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School provided Spanish translators. Two days later, the migrants were taken to temporary housing at Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne.

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Forty-seven of the Martha’s Vineyard migrants have since found housing in Massachusetts — in Lowell, Brockton, Stoughton, Provincetown, and other towns on Cape Cod. Four have returned to Martha’s Vineyard.

“We’re all dispersed,” one migrant told the Globe last month.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross. Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.