May 22, 2024

Judge Dismisses Migrant Records Case

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge has dismissed a lawsuit alleging that the Florida Department of Transportation and a contractor did not fully comply with public-records requests about controversial state-funded flights of migrants to Massachusetts.

Judge Angela Dempsey last week issued two similar decisions rejecting the lawsuit that the non-profit Florida Center for Government Accountability filed in October against the Department of Transportation and Vertol Systems Company, Inc.

The center contended that the department and the contractor violated the state’s public-records law by not fully providing requested documents about the September flights of about 50 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard. The flights, engineered by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, have drawn national scrutiny.

Dempsey concluded that the center did not prove the department and Vertol had withheld documents.

“The burden is on the plaintiff to prove they made a specific request for public records, that Vertol received the request, the requested public records exist and Vertol refused to provide them in a timely manner,” Dempsey wrote in one of the decisions. “While plaintiff meets the first and second prongs of the test, there is no evidence that the public records exist or that Vertol refused to produce public records in a timely manner.”

The decisions were a contrast to an October ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh in a separate lawsuit that the center filed against DeSantis’ office. Marsh ruled that the office did not comply with the public-records law. The administration has appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

The disputes stem from the Sept. 14 flights, which started in San Antonio, stopped at an airport in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview and ended up in Martha’s Vineyard. The DeSantis administration tapped into $12 million that the Legislature provided to transport undocumented immigrants from Florida.

The center filed the lawsuit against the Department of Transportation and Vertol after submitting public-records requests on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22. While the department and Vertol have provided documents, the center has contended that they did not fully comply with the requests.

As an example, in a Nov. 14 court document, the center said information had not been provided about Vertol’s agreement with a subcontractor, Ultimate JetCharters, LLC. While the state spent $615,000 on the September flights, three additional Vertol purchase orders of $950,000 each are listed on a state contracting website for “relocation services.”

“Although it is undisputed that Vertol used subcontractors for the services it performed, including a transport company known as Ultimate JetCharters, LLC, not a single document in the production from FDOT or Vertol has any documentation of FDOT’s project manager approving this subcontract, nor is there any record of the costs Vertol paid to Ultimate JetCharters,” the Nov. 14 court document said.

But Dempsey concluded last week that “there was no unlawful refusal to provide public records by the FDOT.”

In clearing Vertol, Dempsey also took aim at arguments that text messages related to the contract are public records.

“(Under) Florida caselaw, there are classes of documents that may be in the possession and control of Vertol that do not fall within the category of a ‘public record,’” she wrote. “The mere fact that a document, such as an email or test message, is part of Vertol’s files does not make it a ‘public record.’ Even if the text or email is downloaded to the agency’s computer, it does not convert it to a ‘public record.’”

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