Lawyers representing a group of Venzuelan migrants suing Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s administration after they were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, have warned the flight companies against destroying evidence, or risk potential federal court sanctions.
Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal class action lawsuit on 20 September alleging that the governor directed a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport a group of roughly 50 people, including families with small children, as part of a political stunt.
On 29 September, attorneys sent letters to Vertol Systems Company Inc and Ultimate JetCharters with instructions to preserve evidence – including flight logs, passenger lists, communications with any of the defendants, and contracts with the state.
The lawsuit alleges that unnamed defendants working for the administration targeted people seeking asylum in the US with false promises of job opportunities, education and financial assistance before they boarded planes from San Antonio bound for the island, where they arrived unannounced with only the support of local groups and emergency assistance from state agencies.
Florida paid aviation firm Vertol Systems more than $1.5m for the governor’s migrant flight agenda, part of a $12m plan in the state’s budget for the “relocation of unauthorized aliens.”
Ultimate JetCharters allegedly provided the planes for the Martha’s Vineyard flights.
Attorneys have requested preserved documents from “any medium, including but not limited to emails, video or audio footage, phone logs, visitor logs, payment records, manifests, text messages, and social media posts.”
“Please be advised that spoliation of relevant evidence can result in sanctions and other penalties,” attorneys wrote in letters to the companies on 29 September.
Florida’s state budget allows the state’s Department of Transportation to “negotiate and enter into contracts with private parties, including common carriers, to implement the program” and “enter into agreements with any applicable federal agency to implement the programme”.
The state Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to Vertol Systems on 8 September, according to state records. Migrants arrived on Martha’s Vineyard on 14 September.
Records also show that the state paid the same company another $950,000 on 19 September – one day before state officials and aid groups in Delaware anticipated a migrant flight to that state, which was abruptly canceled.
The lawsuit details how three plaintiffs and their families – including a woman with an 11-year-old son – were “rounded up” and promised benefits before boarding flights.
It also details their harrowing journeys from Venezuela, their detentions and release after arriving at the US-Mexico border, and the emotional damage and anxiety after realising they were defrauded as photographs of them circulated across international media.
Defendants “manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process and equal protection under the law”, according to the lawsuit.
The DeSantis administration has repeatedly defended the plan.
After spending two nights on the island at a local church shelter, the migrants were moved to a larger shelter operation at Cape Cod, where they have separate rooms, access to legal services and healthcare and other services. Several people and families have left to other destinations in the US closer to their court proceedings or families.