DeSantis appeals in migrant records dispute

Records dispute in the case stems from the controversial Sept. 14 flights of about 50 migrants

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is appealing a circuit-court order that required it to provide records about a controversial decision to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Administration attorneys filed a notice Monday that is a first step in asking the 1st District Court of Appeal to review the order by Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh, according to documents posted Tuesday on a court docket.

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As is common, the notice did not detail arguments that the administration will make at the Tallahassee-based appeals court. But the administration attorneys wrote that the notice placed a 48-hour automatic stay on Marsh’s order, under procedural rules.

During an Oct. 25 hearing, Marsh issued a verbal ruling in favor of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, which filed a public-records lawsuit alleging that the administration had not turned over requested records about the flights. Marsh followed by issuing a written order Thursday.

The case has focused, at least in part, on requests by the open-government group for phone or text logs that could provide information about communications by DeSantis Chief of Staff James Uthmeier related to the flights. The group filed records requests Sept. 20 and Sept. 21 and alleged in the Oct. 10 lawsuit that the administration had not provided all of the records sought.

Undocumented immigrants were flown to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts in a move that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said was a response to President Joe Biden's illegal immigration policies.

Marsh said the administration did not properly comply with the state’s public-records law and gave it 20 days to provide the records.

“The EOG (Executive Office of the Governor) has presented no evidence to the court of what direct steps it took to identify or produce records responsive to the public records request dated September 20, 2022, some of which have yet to be produced to the plaintiff,” Marsh wrote in Thursday’s order. “The court finds that the EOG is not in compliance with (the public records law). EOG’s partial production and response to the record requests were unreasonable. Specifically, the EOG has not made any production of a text or phone log of James Uthmeier as requested in the records request dated September 20, 2022.”

The records dispute stems from the controversial Sept. 14 flights of about 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, from Texas to Massachusetts. Part of the controversy centers on the DeSantis administration using Florida money to finance the 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.

Faith leaders held a news conference Friday in Orlando to speak out against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after two airplanes carrying immigrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard.

DeSantis, who is widely considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, regularly criticizes the Biden administration on border policy and the handling of undocumented immigrants. He also has been critical of so-called “sanctuary” communities, such as Martha’s Vineyard.

During the Oct. 25 hearing, Andrew King, an attorney for the governor’s office, said the administration was working to fulfill numerous records requests stemming from the migrant flights and that it had a Dec. 1 “target” date to provide records.

The non-profit Florida Center for Government Accountability also has filed a separate public-records lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation and Vertol Systems Company, Inc., which received a state contract to transport migrants. That lawsuit remains pending.

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About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.