DeSantis aide used private email to negotiate immigration flight contract with ex-client

A top aide to Gov. Ron DeSantis used a private email address under the alias “Clarice Starling” — a reference to Hannibal Lecter’s serial killer novel — — to help his former client win a state contract to operate Florida’s controversial immigrant flight program, public records show.

DeSantis public safety director Larry Keefe wrote some of the language used by private contractor Vertol Systems Co. in its bid proposal to fly immigrants from Texas to Democratic states, records show .

Keefe is a former U.S. Attorney during the Trump administration. Represented Vertol in private practice for many yearsDeSantis appointed him last year as a senior adviser whose responsibilities include cracking down on illegal immigration.

related: DeSantis top aide deeply involved in immigration flights

Emails between Keefe and his former client Vertol CEO James Montgomerie, first reported by NBC6, showing the close relationship that Keefe has continued to maintain after entering government service. It was that relationship that helped Vertol land a lucrative taxpayer contract, which Keefe discussed without using his standard, state-issued email account.

“This is the email channel to use,” Keefe wrote to Montgomery on Aug. 26, just as Destin, Fla.-based Vertol Airlines was preparing to bid for the state’s immigrant flight program.

The email account was a private Gmail address that listed Keefe’s name as “Clarice Starling,” an FBI intern and lead actress in the serial killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs. The account also included the phrase “Heat 19,” which Keefe said was the callsign given to him by the former U.S. Air Force special operations commander during his private practice.

Four days after the initial message, Keefe sent Montgomery eight paragraphs of text that the Vitol CEO incorporated almost verbatim into his formal proposal for an immigration flight plan. The Florida Department of Transportation quickly approved Vertol’s proposal, and the first flight began just over a week later.

Before the contract was approved, Keefe and Montgomery exchanged dozens of emails and text messages — some via the encrypted messaging app Signal.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions about why Keefe used a private email address. Keefe and Montgomery did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Christmas Eve, DeSantis’ office released new emails.

The records were made public only after the governor’s office got into a dispute with the Florida Government Accountability Center, a nonprofit that sue the state Because of the delay in releasing public records about its immigrant flight plan.

related: Watchdog wants DeSantis to flout public records

The program so far has seen Florida Pay Vertol At least $1.5 million for the Sept. 14 flight of 49 mostly Venezuelan immigrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, as well as scheduled flights to Delaware and Illinois, which The flight hasn’t happened yet.While DeSantis defended the flight as an attempt to draw attention to the crisis at the border, the taxpayer-funded scheme has resulted in several lawsuits, including from immigrants who say they were tricked into getting on the plane, and Bexar County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation in Texas.

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The immigration flight program seeks to deport “unauthorized aliens” from Florida. But critics, including Florida Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups, point out that the migrants have legal status in the U.S. and were found in Texas, not Florida. Vertol and the state dubbed the plan a “humanitarian operation,” internal documents show.

DeSantis won re-election easily this year and is expected to be one of the front-runners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. The immigration flight proved popular among his Republican supporters.

Several attendees at a pre-election rally for governor wore “DeSantis Airlines” T-shirts.

“The Antithesis of Open Government”

Michael Barfield, director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said that while state officials like Keefe are allowed to conduct public business through private emails, doing so raises issues of transparency.

“Our open government laws are designed to prevent backroom trading and keep the public informed. It’s the antithesis of open government. With encrypted apps and military jargon, it’s not in line with doing things under the sun,” Barfield said in an interview . “To make matters worse, both Mr. Keefe and Mr. Montgomery know what they’re doing. They’re very well versed in public records law. Communicating in this way is sure to make it harder for ordinary citizens … to discover what’s really going on behind the scenes.”

These emails were not originally generated in response to a public records request. After the Florida Government Accountability Center suggested the state was withholding some records, Keefe remembered he may have used the “Clarice Starling/Heat 19” email account to discuss the immigrant flight plan, according to the Florida Office of Open Government.

That led the state to uncover communications between Keefe and Montgomery, including emails in which Keefe appeared to draft Vertol’s bid.

“Who does Mr. Keefe work for?” Barfield said. “Florida or contractor or both?”

The emails also show that Montgomery lied under oath when he was removed from office in Florida’s Government Accountability Center lawsuit, according to a court motion filed by the nonprofit.

In sworn testimony last month, Montgomery was asked about the “draft” he referred to in a Sept. 1 signal message to Keefe. Montgomery replied that he was talking about a consent form to be filled out by immigrants. But according to the Florida Center for Government Accountability, recently released emails show he was actually discussing Vertol’s draft bid.

In its motion, the nonprofit asked the judge to allow it to re-examine Montgomery.

Miami Herald contributors Mary Ellen Klass and Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.