Judge rules against Governor DeSantis on migrant cases

TALAHASSEE – A Leon County circuit judge ruled Tuesday that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration failed to comply with the state’s public records law after an open government group searched for documents on a controversial decision to transport migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Judge J. Lee Marsh gave the administration 20 days to provide the documents requested by the Florida Center for Government Accountability. Marsh pointed to, at least in part, requested phone or text logs that may provide information about communications from DeSantis Chief of Staff James Uthmeier about the thefts.

Marsh said the governor’s office showed “no direct action taken to gather what this court considers to be public records” related to state business conducted on personal devices.

Michael Barfield, director of public access at the center, said Marsh’s verbal decision held the governor accountable for delays in providing public records.

“The right of public access has been justified,” Barfield said. “The governor is not immune to

be held responsible.”

Ahead of the ruling, Andrew King, an attorney for DeSantis, argued that the administration was working to accommodate the many requests for records stemming from migrant thefts. He accused the center of “weaponizing” public records law to get ahead of other people or organizations seeking records.

“We are working diligently to provide all of these Martha’s Vineyard records to everyone who has asked,” King said.

But Marsh pushed back on the “weapons” argument.

“They’re just using the law passed by the legislature,” Marsh said.

Andrea Flynn Mogensen, an attorney for the center, said the administration’s arguments about a backlog of requests are evidence of a delay that violates public records law.

“We’re told, you’re online, get online and stay online,” she said.

The center filed a lawsuit Oct. 10 alleging that the governor’s office failed to comply with requests made on Sept. 21 and 22 after about 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, were flown from Texas to Massachusetts.

Part of the controversy centers on the DeSantis administration using Florida money to fund the two Sept. 14 flights, which started in San Antonio, stopped at an airport in Crestview, in the northwest of the Florida, and ended up at Martha’s Vineyard. The DeSantis administration tapped into the $12 million the Legislature provided to transport undocumented immigrants from Florida.

DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, regularly criticizes the Biden administration over border policy and the treatment of undocumented immigrants. He also criticized so-called “sanctuary” communities, such as Martha’s Vineyard.

In addition to searching Uthmeier’s phone or text logs, the center searched for records of such things as all communications with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office regarding the relocation of migrants. The DeSantis administration released some records, but the center said in the lawsuit the release was not “responsive” to requests.

King said in Tuesday’s hearing that the administration had a “target date” of Dec. 1 to provide the requested records, but Mogensen called that “unreasonable.” The center also asked for a shorter delay than the 20 days that Marsh gave the administration.

Nicholas Meros, another attorney for DeSantis, made a series of statements in court after Marsh’s decision that could pave the way for an appeal. Mogensen indicated after the hearing that she expects an appeal.

The center also filed a separate lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation and Vertol Systems Company, Inc., which received a state contract to transport migrants. This trial remains pending.

Additionally, Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court, alleging that the DeSantis administration violated the state Constitution and separate law in its handling of the migrant flights.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing some asylum seekers flown to Massachusetts have filed a potential class action lawsuit in federal court against DeSantis, Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and people who helped recruit the immigrants to the Texas.

– News Service videographer Mike Exline contributed to this report.