TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and other state officials by migrants taken to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. has new developments.
In addition to the state actors already named as defendants, the migrants have now added Vertol, the company contracted by the state for transportation, Vertol CEO James Montgomerie, Perla Huerta, the woman paid to recruit immigrants for the move, and Florida Public Safety Czar Larry Keefe.
In October, Huerta was identified by multiple news outlets as a former military service member living in Tampa, who retired from active duty as a “a former combat medic and U.S. Army counterintelligence agent” in August 2022.
The amended complaint, filed by the attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights, added the transportation company, its CEO, Keefe, and Huerta for their roles in the alleged “deceptive recruitment of immigrants,” as well as saying new public records released have painted a “detailed picture of a coordinated scheme at the highest levels of the Florida government.”
The lawsuit filed by the migrants has focused on the events leading up to the transportation of nearly 50 individuals to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio, Texas.
“All actors – public or private – involved in this effort to exploit our clients for political or monetary gain will be held accountable,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, LCR’s Executive Director, said in a statement. “Let this be a warning to anyone thinking about becoming involved in a deceptive scheme like this in the future: do so at your peril.”
In LCR’s release about the amended lawsuit, representatives said, “Text messages and other documents show, for example, that Lawrence Keefe, Florida’s “Public Safety Czar,” and James Uthmeier, Gov. DeSantis’s Chief of Staff, were intimately involved in the plot from inception through to execution.”
Continuing, LCR said, “The amended complaint also outlines a web of involvement from Vertol Systems Company, Inc., the politically-connected plane company that chartered the Martha’s Vineyard flights, and the infamous ‘Perla,'” as well as noting that, “to date, Vertol has received over $1.5 million from the State of Florida for the scheme.”
That $1.565 million was paid in two installments, according to records from Transparency Florida, a government-operated site which provides budget information on state spending. The first payment for the migrant flights, which took migrants to Massachusetts, was $615,000.
The second payment made to Vertol, for $965,000, was made weeks later. No other flights of migrants enacted or planned by Florida officials have been reported since the initial program. In Florida, some state lawmakers, as well as some nonprofits, have filed suit to gain more information about the flight program, which was paid for out of a one-time $12 million allocation in the 2022 fiscal appropriation.
The class-action lawsuit is demanding a jury trial against Florida’s officials, Vertol, and Huerta, on behalf of the 48 migrants taken to Martha’s Vineyard.
“This was an abhorrent abuse of power, and we will work to ensure that nothing like it happens again,” Oscar Chacon, Executive Director of Alianza Americas, said in a statement. “Using human beings as political props is both morally repugnant and illegal.”
They ask the courts to award damages to all plaintiffs, as well as approve a preliminary, then permanent, injunction to prevent the named defendants, and others, from “acting in concert or participating with them form inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”
Since filing the case in court, attorneys and the migrants they represent have received death threats. Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating the migrant flights for how the funding was used, and where it came from. Additional records related to the flights are expected to be released by the governor in December.
WFLA.com has reached out to the governor’s office for comment on the amended complaint and is awaiting a response.