Other Texas officials helped DeSantis migrant flights

Weeks before a former Army counterintelligence officer from San Antonio recruited stranded immigrants to leave the state as a political gesture by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, she drove to places in August with a senior Florida official and officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety to explore in Del Rio where they could do the same.

Text messages released late Monday show DeSantis employees communicating with Texas officials well before the splashy flight of immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Most of the messages went between Larry Keefe, the Florida governor’s public safety czar, and James Montgomerie, a contractor who facilitated the migrant flights, along with Army veteran Perla Huerta, who was Montgomerie’s employee.

The latest texts, released to some reporters as part of a public lawsuit filed by the Florida Center for Government Accountability, shows that the Florida delegation also reached out to Sam Miller, an operations chief with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, for information ahead of DeSantis’ project .

Ultimately, Huerta recruited about 50 South Americans near a support center for migrants on San Pedro Boulevard in San Antonio, and the Florida group flew them to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14 in two chartered private planes, records show.

The flights sparked outrage from Democrats and pro-immigrant advocates and were seen as an attempt by DeSantis to eclipse Gov. Greg Abbott, who had achieved the same effect by using buses to ferry immigrants to cities like New York, Chicago and Washington to bring DC

Texts released Monday show that Dave Abrams, an adviser to DeSantis’ reelection campaign, has been included in talks about the migrants. He could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

A text exchange previously released by the center showed that Abbott’s office may have known about DeSantis’ plans, despite a claim by an Abbott spokesman that the Texas governor was not involved in the flights.

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The exchange between DeSantis chief of staff James Uthmeier and Luis Saenz, Abbott’s chief of staff, included information for Keefe and a message that said “he can bring others on board if needed.” The news added that Keefe was a “former US attorney under Trump, trusted and effective.”

“The notion of Texas and Gov. Abbott saying they were not involved is expletive,” Michael Barfield, the center’s director of public access, said in an interview Tuesday, using a barn term for untruth.

Barfield’s group believes that the DeSantis office appears to have withheld some records despite a judge’s order that relevant public information about the Martha’s Vineyard flights be released.

“We also learned that these individuals used encrypted messages with Signal and believe no further records have yet been made,” Barfield said.

The texts show that Miller, the Texas emergency management official, provided Huerta with information on how migrants navigate north after they were treated and released by US Border Patrol agents. The news also relates to meetings Miller had with the Florida delegation.

Late Tuesday, Miller’s agency released a statement saying it had received a request “from our DPS partners” to notify Florida Department of Law Enforcement employees who are touring the border area in August to “restrict voluntary border bus operations.” of our state” to observe.

Emergency management officials “were unaware of how Florida law enforcement officials would use the information gathered from these conversations,” the statement said.

Huerta, a San Antonio high school senior who retired in August after 20 years in the Army, recruited the immigrants by asking one of her fellow San Antonio residents, a homeless Venezuelan named Emmanuel, according to the League of United Latin American Citizens paid $700 and lawyers for the migrants.

According to Jorge Aristotelidis, one of Emmanuel’s attorneys, the cash payments were placed in paper bags and hidden near a dumpster behind a Bill Miller restaurant in East Terrell Hills.

“The money was left in a place that no one else would know about,” said Aristotelidis. “These people didn’t want anyone to know who paid.”

He said Emmanuel felt he had been manipulated by Huerta because she gave him misleading information to pass on to the migrants he had recruited. He was living in a makeshift camp behind a McDonald’s near the migrant center when Huerta approached him.

Huerta, 43, has largely disappeared from public view, deleting her social media profiles and selling her home in Tampa, Fla. She is a person of interest in an ongoing investigation by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, but was not interviewed for the investigation.

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Emmanuel, whose last name has not been released for security reasons, has been cooperating with investigators.

“He was interviewed by the sheriff’s department as a witness,” Aristotelidis said.

DeSantis’ flights also sparked an investigation by the Treasury Department’s inspector general into whether the governor misappropriated money related to federal COVID-19 relief. Boston-based civil rights attorneys have sued DeSantis, accusing him of making “false promises and misrepresentations” to force them on the flights.

A Florida judge earlier ordered the DeSantis government to release documents related to the migrant flights by Monday after ruling that DeSantis was not following state public records laws.

Some of the texts released Monday are dated August through mid-September and show Keefe communicating with Montgomerie, owners of Florida-based Vertol Systems Company Inc., which facilitated the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, about contracts and flight times. Huerta was working for Vertol at the time, as the lyrics show.

One of the texts reveals that Keefe and Huerta were on the ground in South Texas in mid-August and apparently learned about Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s controversial operation that flooded the border with state troops and Army National Guard units to patrol and in some cases to arrest undocumented immigrants.

“Perla and I in the vehicle with (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and Texas DPS,” Keefe told a person identified as “Kiwi” Aug. 16. “Will advise.”

One of the DPS officers they spoke about was Lt. Noe Fernandez from Del Rio, but it was unclear if Fernandez was helping them. He could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The lyrics reveal that Huerta was also in Del Rio looking for space for Vertol to park pickup trucks and run a small office of up to 10 people.

On August 16, Huerta Miller wrote to the state’s Emergency Department.

“Thank you again for yesterday, it was a lot but very productive and helpful,” Huerta wrote. “By the way, do you know where refugees hang out while waiting for greyhounds or flights? Country (sic) how do you get to the airport and greyhound?”

“Most of the time, they stay with the NGO (non-governmental organization) until they travel,” Miller replied. “Taxi from the NGO to the airport and the greyhound stops at the NGO.”

Other texts show that Huerta wrote to others with Vertol that she was searching churches in Del Rio for migrants.

On September 5, Huerta wrote to Miller that she and others were back in Texas to see if Miller could meet. Miller replied that he could not.

The lyrics don’t reveal what caused the Florida group to shift their focus to San Antonio. But they reveal that Montgomerie and Keefe were in San Antonio with Candice Wahowski, Vertol’s No. 2 officer, on the day the flights to Martha’s Vineyard departed.

Flight routes show that Montgomerie, Keefe, and Wahowski flew with the migrants from Kelly Field in San Antonio to Florida, where Keefe and Montgomerie disembarked. Wahowski escorted the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, left them there, and boarded a plane to Atlantic City.

Huerta was not on any of those flights, records show.

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