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Treasury watchdog to probe DeSantis’ use of COVID relief money to fund migrant flights

(WASHINGTON) — A Treasury Department watchdog will probe whether Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis improperly used 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 audit work “planned,” based on DeSantis’ recent transport of undocumented immigrants to to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, among other places.

The letter was sent in response to members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation’s Sept. 16 request that Treasury look into DeSantis’ compliance with parameters placed on funding use from the Coronavirus Relief Fund established by the CARES Act and the Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, created under the American Rescue Plan Act. Politico first reported on the letter.

“We have already sought information from Florida about appropriate use of that fund,” Richard K. Delmar, deputy inspector general for the Treasury Department said in the letter, sent to Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and five Massachusetts Democratic House members.

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

DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske said that the Florida Office of Policy and Budget spoke with the Treasury inspector general’s office “weeks ago” about using interest on the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. The budget office articulated to Treasury that “our use of this interest, as appropriated by the Florida Legislature, is permissible under the SLFRF Final Rule,” Fenske said.

“Reviews by Treasury are typical and, as stated by the OIG, are ‘part of its oversight responsibilities,"” she added.

Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ABC News.

Florida state legislators earlier this year laid out in the state budget that $12 million in interest earned off COVID aid be used to pay for the transport of “unauthorized aliens from this state,” not that the state directly used the federal COVID funds. The DeSantis administration maintains that the $12 million put forth for migrant transportation was passed in June as part of the state’s budget.

“As you may know, in this past legislative session the Florida Legislature appropriated $12 million to implement a program to facilitate the transport of illegal immigrants from this state consistent with federal law. Florida’s immigration relocation program both targets human smugglers found in Florida and preempts others from entering,” Fenske told ABC News in September.

Treasury will “specifically confirm whether interest earned on (the) funds was utilized by Florida related to immigration activities, and if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” according to the letter sent to members of Congress.

The Florida Department of Transportation disclosed in public records released by the state late Friday laid out that Vertol Systems, a charter airline company, was the vendor Florida hired to contract with airlines to fly the group of Venezuelans. Records show that 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, a day before another reported flight carrying migrants to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, was canceled.

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

Some of the migrants from Venezuela, including parents and children, said they thought they were being taken to communities with jobs for them and other resources, they or their attorneys later said. But local officials said they did not know about their arrival and scrambled to accommodate them.

Democrats have cast the migrant transports from Republican DeSantis as an inhumane political stunt.

Attorneys representing some of the migrants filed a class-action lawsuit in late September, claiming “material misrepresentations [were] made in furtherance of the unlawful scheme.” And a Florida lawmaker filed his own complaint on Sept. 22, arguing the state monies for the flights were illegally used.

The sheriff in San Antonio, Texas, has also opened an investigation, telling ABC News: “We have to determine what exactly happened — what was said, what was done, how were these people treated while they were here in my county? And if we can prove criminal intent, then we may be charging somebody with a crime.”

Markey responded on Wednesday to Treasury’s letter, noting that he hopes, 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 swift response from the Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General,” said Markey. “For the sake of the migrants who were lured onto charter planes under false pretenses, and for the commendable Commonwealth residents who rallied together to offer support, I hope that this investigation sheds light on whether Governor DeSantis misused funds that were intended for COVID relief for Floridians.”

Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director 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 inquiry, they’ll find that DeSantis misused those funds intended for COVID relief to violate the rights of vulnerable migrants.

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

“I believe that they will find that federal funds were misused, that money that was intended for local governments to respond to a public health emergency, were instead spent to violate the constitutional rights of a very vulnerable population. That’s a misuse of federal funds and we fully expect that’s what the investigation will determine,” he said.

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

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