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California officials frustrated as Florida withholds records on migrant flights to Sacramento

Five weeks ago, FL flew 36 asylum-seeking migrants to Sacramento
Posted at 3:32 PM, Jul 12, 2023

Last month, Florida chartered two planes to fly 36 asylum-seeking migrants from New Mexico to Sacramento as part of the state’s $12 million migrant relocation program. Governor Ron DeSantis embraced the program to shine a light on America’s ongoing border issues.

“If there’s a policy to have an open border, then I think these sanctuary cities should be the ones that have to bear that,” Governor DeSantis said last month in response to questions about the flights.

But five weeks later, the DeSantis administration has yet to release public documents revealing how the flights were arranged and how much they cost.

“This is the least transparent administration that I've seen in the 35 years that I've been doing this work,” explained Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access at Florida’s Center for Government Accountability.

Last year, the non-partisan nonprofit sued the DeSantis administration after the state delayed turning over records related to its first round of migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard.

The center won, and the state eventually released hundreds of records related to those flights (the state appealed a ruling it violated Florida sunshine laws, and that case is pending). But Barfield said Florida’s ongoing secrecy about its migrant relocation program recently prompted calls to his office from California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Legal Affairs Secretary, who is also seeking details about the Sacramento charters.

“They reached out to us because they are experiencing exactly what everyone else is, which is delay and denial of access to information about what and how these events came together,” Barfield explained.

In an email acknowledging its communication with Barfield’s group, a spokesperson from Governor Newsom’s office stated, “For a state known for its sunshine, Tallahassee is awfully cloudy these days. In an effort to access basic public records from the Office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, our office has been in touch with Florida's Center for Government Accountability.”

Little is known about the California flights on Florida’s dime.

In its only statement about the flights released after 5 pm on June 6th (after both flights landed in Sacramento), a Florida’s Division of Emergency Management spokesperson described the flights as “voluntary.” In an edited video provided by the agency as part of its statement, the migrants shown appeared to be signing consent forms smiling, happy, and celebrating.

In interviews from early June, shortly after the migrants landed, California Attorney General Rob Bonta told reporters the migrants he spoke with suggested they were lured through false promises of jobs and places to stay.

“It’s a silly, cruel, inhumane disgusting political stunt,” Attorney General Bonta said about the flights at the time.

According to his spokesperson, Bonta also submitted a series of public records requests to Florida that have yet to be fulfilled.

While Florida has contracted with three companies to carry out its migrant relocation program, contracts available online shed little light on specifics and costs of flights.

A new contract with Florida-based Vertol Systems Inc, which has been linked to the Sacramento flights and was the company that facilitated the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard last year, does not include any specific information about the Sacramento flights. The only cost included in the company’s most recent state contract is “Stage one- development phase.” That cost is listed as a lump sum of $487,000.

All costs associated with the Sacramento flights are details that should be available in invoices, receipts, and other public records Florida officials have yet to make public.

“We need this information to be able to perform our mission to educate the citizens about the use of taxpayer resources, and they can make their own decisions about whether they think this is a good idea or a bad one,” explained Barfield.

When asked when records about these flights will be released to the public (including responses to our own public records requests), neither Florida’s Governor’s office nor Florida’s Division of Emergency Management offered any specific details as of Wednesday afternoon.

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