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Florida could pay private attorneys nearly $1.5M for lawsuit defense over migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard

Legal fees could cost more than migrant flights themselves, state contracts show
Marthas vinyard migrants
Posted at 10:22 AM, Jan 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-11 10:22:37-05

Update: In an earlier version of this story, Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, was incorrectly identified as lead attorney for the Center.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is turning heads again over his decision to privately fly nearly 50 asylum-seeking migrants in Texas to the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard back in September.

This time, it’s over costs Florida taxpayers are expected to pay for state officials, including the Governor, to legally defend themselves in court over the headline-making move.

“We take what happens at the southern border very seriously, unlike some,” Governor DeSantis said back in September after taking credit for the controversial flights.

According to the state’s contract database, Florida has budgeted nearly $1.5 million so far in legal defense fees in connection to several lawsuits filed over the migrant flights. That total is approximately the same amount Florida paid its contractor, Vertol Systems Inc., to coordinate the two flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

State records show Florida paid Vertol Systems two payments for those flights totaling just over $1.5 million. Two additional payments of $950,000 have been made to Vertol Systems Inc, though the state has not detailed what those payments were for.

Among the legal battles the state is now involved in as a result of the flights includes a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the migrants. The migrants involved in the lawsuit claim they were lied to and misled into taking the chartered planes through false promises of jobs and housing awaiting them on the ritzy island if they agreed to go.

According to the state’s contract website, Florida has agreed to pay two Boston-based law firms up to $500,000 each to help defend the Governor, Florida’s Department of Transportation, and other state officials named in the suit. The two firms, Consovoy McCarthy and Campbell Conroy & O’Neil, have worked for Florida before.

The combined million-dollar legal contracts with the firms detail how the state will pay its lead attorneys representing Florida in the case $650 per hour, which is more than two times the state’s $200 limit for private attorney fees.

While the state allows exceptions for lawyers with “special expertise,” no one from the Governor’s office nor Florida’s Department of Transportation has responded to our questions about the legal costs and neither office has provided us with a copy of any statement of waiver justifying its pricey attorney picks. Online records show a total of just $100,000 has been paid to these two firms so far.

But the state’s website also shows these firms are not the only ones helping the state defend itself over the flights.

Also hired to defend Florida officials in a separate lawsuit over the flights is the Radey firm, which is based in Tallahassee. State contract records show the firm was recently hired by the Governor’s office for “attorney services.”

The two attorneys from the firm named by the state as providing those services are also representing the state in an ongoing public records lawsuit filed by Florida’s Center for Government Accountability.

Back in October, Florida’s Center for Government Accountability (FCGA) sued the state after it wouldn’t release the public records over how it orchestrated and executed the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard.

A judge ordered the state to release those records, but the state didn’t release everything. The judge, at the time, also ordered the state to pay for all attorney and court fees associated with the Center’s lawsuit.

In response to learning the state had not released all records pertaining to the flights, FCGA filed a new motion in November asking a judge to charge the state with contempt of court. The same attorneys from the Radey Firm are representing the state in this contempt motion.

According to the state’s contract website, a purchase order for $100,000 was made to the Radey Firm on December 13th, while the “total budgetary amount” to the firm for these attorney services is listed at $400,000.

“I don’t think it’s the best use of taxpayer resources,” Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, when we asked about the state’s mounting legal fees from its court battles over these flights.

“Sadly, when public officials break the law, taxpayers end up paying for it,” he said.

The Governor’s office has not responded to questions about any legal agreements with these law firms or any legal costs and payments made to the firms in connection to the migrant flights.

A spokesperson for Governor DeSantis has stated in the past that the state plans to appeal the judge’s decision over FCGA’s public records case and that his administration is continuing to produce records about the flights in a timely manner.