The Treasury Department is now investigating whether the taxpayer money Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) spent to fly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard for political theater last month came from federal COVID-19 relief.
Richard Delmar, the department’s deputy inspector general, sent a letter to a congressional delegation of Massachusetts lawmakers on Friday saying that his office was reviewing Florida’s use of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) that was established by the American Rescue Plan.
“We will review the allowability of use of SLFRF funds related to immigration generally, and will specifically confirm whether interest earned on SLFRF was utilized by Florida related to immigration activities, and if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” Delmar wrote.
The Treasury official said the department planned to “get this work underway as quickly as possible.”
Delmar’s letter, which was released by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on Wednesday, came in response to the request Markey and five other Massachusetts lawmakers had sent on Sept. 16 asking for a probe into DeSantis’ potential abuse of the aid.
“States should not be permitted to use COVID-19 relief funds for any parochial interest unrelated to the pandemic, particularly for naked political conduct that imposes severe and unjust harms on disadvantaged groups of individuals,” the lawmakers wrote.
While the $12 million DeSantis poured into the gambit didn’t come directly from Congress’ COVID-19 relief funds, it did come from the interest his state had earned off the aid, per the Washington Post.
The civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had this past June urged the Treasury Department to open a probe into the Florida governor. DeSantis had not yet launched his cruel stunt dumping migrants across the country, but he had been seeking to use $12 million in federal coronavirus funding to aid his anti-immigrant platform. SPLC had warned in its letter that the “proposed misuse of these funds reinforces anti-immigrant policies,” as well as “sets a dangerous precedent.”
Damn, was that on money. DeSantis had already signaled last fall that he was going to make a scandal out of entirely routine flights that the federal government carries out, including under the insurrectionist president. When that didn’t stick long enough to his liking, he went to Texas to just carry out his own flights.
Markey’s office said it has been in contact with federal, state, and local officials regarding DeSantis’ cruel transportation of dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, with support from nonprofits like the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the Venezuelan Association of Massachusetts. Markey’s office noted efforts to ensure that vulnerable children and adults transported by DeSantis from Texas to Massachusetts have been met with “continued care.”
DeSantis is not the only anti-immigrant governor under investigation by the Treasury watchdog, as a matter of fact. This past spring, Delmar said the department would be launching a probe into whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott misused federal pandemic funds to keep his illegal Operation Lone Star border stunt operational. The Washington Post reported possible misuse of as much as $1 billion.
Congressional lawmakers led by Texas’ Joaquin Castro and Veronica Escobar had urged the watchdog to investigate Abbott using federal funds like his personal ATM for racist hate, writing that he was diverting money from critical public sector resources. “It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor Abbot to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” they wrote.
This story has just a tangential Texas connection, but I’m following it anyway out of sheer curiosity. Mostly, I want to see if it’s even possible for there to be consequences for would-be authoritarians like DeSantis, who will otherwise keep pushing boundaries since there’s apparently nothing to stop them. Along those lines, we also have this.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar on Thursday certified that 49 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month were victims of a crime. The move clears a pathway for those migrants to get a special visa to stay in the country that they otherwise would not have received.
Rachel Self, a Massachusetts attorney working with the migrants, told radio station WGBH that the move by Salazar is a key part of the migrants’ applications for a “U visa,” which is reserved for victims of crime or people who witnessed a crime. In a statement, Salazar said his office had submitted documents with the federal system “to ensure the migrants’ availability as witnesses during the investigation.”
Attorneys like Self are seeking the visas for the migrants on the grounds that they were taken to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses.
“Based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible Unlawful Restraint,” Salazar said in a statement.
Salazar said his office has identified witnesses in the case but could not release their names because the investigation is ongoing.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Salazar’s statement hinted that no action would be taken against the Republican governor, saying that “only those who were physically in our jurisdiction at the time of the offense are considered suspects.”
While it is no surprise that there were laws broken in this process, the idea that DeSantis himself could have been targeted by law enforcement was always a big stretch. He’d have plenty of cover even if there were a good circumstantial case to be made. Maybe if Perla does some singing if and when she’s ever hauled in, that could change, but again I would not bet on it. Perhaps just the idea that his own actions led to these migrants getting a long-term stay in the country will serve as a deterrent to future stunts like this by DeSantis. I’ll take what I can get. The Current has more.
UPDATE: Things get even more complex.
District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine has opened an investigation into whether southern border state governors misled immigrants as part of what he called a “political stunt” to transport them to Washington.
Racine told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune his office is examining whether immigrants were deceived by trip organizers before boarding buses for Washington, including several hundred who were bused from Texas under instructions from Gov. Greg Abbott and dropped near the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris. Racine’s office has the authority to bring misdemeanor criminal charges or to file civil fraud cases.
Racine said that in interviews with his investigators, arriving immigrants “have talked persuasively about being misled, with talk about promised services.” He offered no specifics about the inquiry, including whether it is being handled by his office’s criminal or civil divisions. The attorney general’s office declined to answer further questions.
Various state and federal laws could apply to transporting immigrants across state lines. Racine’s office could look into whether anyone committed fraud by falsely promising jobs or services, whether there were civil rights violations or whether officials misused taxpayers’ money.
Racine’s involvement ratchets up the pressure on the governors over their actions.
Elected as a Democrat, Racine criticized the Republican governors for using “people as props. That’s what they’ve done with the immigrants.”
Racine’s office can prosecute certain misdemeanors, and felonies are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But its highest profile work has been bringing civil fraud lawsuits against nonprofits and businesses. In May, it reached a $750,000 settlement in a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, alleging that it had abused donors’ funds by overpaying for rentals at the Trump International Hotel.
The governors have said they have done nothing wrong in transporting immigrants to “sanctuary cities” that may be better equipped to care for them. They say they want the rest of the nation to share the burden of what they call the Biden administration’s open border policies.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, said that some immigrants who were sent from Texas to Harris’ residence in Washington have told his team they were misled about their final destination. The immigrants believed they were bound for Union Station, the city’s central transportation hub, where many hoped to connect with family or trains and buses to other locations. Instead, he said, they were dropped off at about 6 a.m. in an unfamiliar spot, where a church group quickly organized to pick them up.
“I think they are being tricked and being used,” Garcia said.
Since the spring, buses have arrived almost daily at Union Station, where immigrants can now seek support from a new city Office of Migrant Services. So far, Texas taxpayers have spent about $14 million on migrant transportation, according to state records. Buses into Washington have continued in recent days, with several additional arrivals at the vice president’s residence.
As I said above, I don’t know how much actual accountability this can force, but it’s something.