Treasury to investigate DeSantis’ use of COVID aid money to fund migrant flights

The U.S. Treasury Department will investigate whether Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis misused COVID-19 relief funding to pay for migrant flights, ABC News confirmed Wednesday.

In a letter obtained by ABC News, the agency’s inspector general’s office said it has “planned” audit work based on the recent transportation of undocumented immigrants from DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, among other places.

The letter was sent in response to a Sept. 16 request by members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation that the Treasury Department review DeSantis’ compliance with the parameters set in using funding from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Local fiscal recovery created under the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We have already sought input from Florida on the proper use of this fund,” Richard C. Delmar, the Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said in the letter sent to Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and five Massachusetts Democratic House members.

“We plan to begin this work as quickly as possible, consistent with fulfilling our other mandates and oversight priorities, both in the pandemic recovery programs and in the other Treasury programs and operations for which we have responsibility.”

Ron DeSantis speaks at the 2022 Victory Dinner in Hollywood, Florida on July 23, 2022.

Eva Marie Uscategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Florida state lawmakers earlier this year indicated in the state budget that $12 million in interest earned from the COVID aid would be used to pay for the transportation of “unauthorized aliens from this state,” not that the state directly used the federal funds from COVID. The DeSantis administration said the $12 million earmarked for transporting migrants was passed in June as part of the state budget.

“As you may know, last legislative session the Florida Legislature appropriated $12 million to implement a program to facilitate the transportation of illegal immigrants from that state in accordance with federal law. Florida’s immigration removal program targets both people smugglers found in Florida and prevents others from entering,” DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske told ABC in September.

The Treasury Department “will confirm specifically whether interest earned on (those) funds were used by Florida related to immigration activities and, if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” according to the letter.

The Florida Department of Transportation and public records released by the state late Friday said Vertol Systems, a charter airline, was the supplier hired by Florida to contract with airlines to transport the group of Venezuelans. The documents show the state paid the company $615,000 on Sept. 8, less than a week before the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, and another $950,000 on Sept. 19, the day before another reported flight carrying migrants to President Joe’s home state Biden Delaware, was overruled.

On Sept. 14, the DeSantis administration chartered two planes carrying about 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, an island enclave off the coast of Massachusetts that is known for its seasonal visitors like the Obamas.

Some of the Venezuelan migrants, including parents and children, said they believed they were being taken to communities with jobs for them and other resources, they or their lawyers said later. But local officials said they were unaware of their arrival and tried to accommodate them.

Democrats described the migrant shipments by Republican DeSantis as an inhumane political stunt.

Lawyers representing some of the migrants filed a class-action lawsuit in late September, alleging “substantial misrepresentations [were] made in support of the illegal scheme.” And a Florida lawmaker filed his own complaint on Sept. 22, alleging that state money for the flights was used illegally.

PHOTO: Senator Ed Markey speaks at a hearing in Washington, April 27, 2022.

Senator Ed Markey speaks at a hearing in Washington, DC, April 27, 2022.

Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The sheriff in San Antonio, Texas, also launched an investigation, telling ABC News, “We need to determine exactly what happened — what was said, what was done, how these people were treated while they were here in my county ? And if we can prove criminal intent, then we can charge someone with a crime.

Markey responded Wednesday to the Treasury Department’s letter, noting that he hoped, on behalf of the migrants and Massachusetts residents who offered to help them upon their arrival, that the investigation “sheds light” on whether the Republican governor misused funds.

“I applaud the Treasury inspector general’s quick response,” Markey said. “For the sake of the migrants who were lured onto chartered planes under false pretenses, and for the commendable Commonwealth residents who came together to offer support, I hope this investigation sheds light on whether Governor DeSantis misused funds , designed to provide Florida residents with COVID relief.

Oren Sellstrom, director of litigation for Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston (LCR), told ABC News that his team welcomes news of the Treasury Department’s investigation and that he believes that at the end of their investigation, they will find that DeSantis has misused these funds intended for COVID relief to violate the rights of vulnerable migrants.

His team represents many of the migrants who were airlifted to Martha’s Vineyard and who are part of the class action lawsuit against Florida officials. One of the allegations in that lawsuit is that DeSantis misused those funds.

“I believe they will find that federal funds have been misused, that money that was intended for local governments to respond to public health emergencies has instead been spent to violate the constitutional rights of the very vulnerable population. This is a misuse of federal funds, and we fully expect that the investigation will establish that,” he said.

ABC News’ Benjamin Siegel, Miles Cohen and Armando Garcia contributed to this report.

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