It’s been about a month since Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration used false promises to lure desperate migrants onto airplanes in Texas, before dumping them on a New England island ill-equipped for their unannounced arrival. Since then, much of the discussion has been about politics and morality: Why did the Florida Republican exploit these struggling people? Did the stunt help or hurt the far-right governor’s political prospects?
But the legal dimension to this controversy is every bit as important.
Three weeks ago, a Texas sheriff said he had opened a criminal investigation into the matter, with a special emphasis on whether Team DeSantis had perpetrated a fraud, using lies to exploit its victims. Some of the migrants, represented by counsel, sued the GOP governor and other state officials in federal court soon after, alleging they were victims of fraud.
Now, the legal scrutiny has expanded a bit more as a federal inspector general examines whether Florida misused federal funds to pay for the stunt. NBC News reported:
Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation asked the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General last month to determine whether Florida improperly paid for the flights with money from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, which was created by legislation on Capitol Hill. In a letter Friday that was made public Wednesday, Richard K. Delmar, the Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, told Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and four House members from the state that the office had reached out to Florida seeking details about its use of the federal funds through general oversight and “has audit work planned on recipients’ compliance with eligible use guidance.”
Right about now, some readers are probably asking, “Wait, I thought DeSantis used funds appropriated by Florida’s Republican state legislature. What does this have to do with federal resources?”
When congressional Democrats approved the American Rescue Plan early last year, it provided state and local governments resources to bolster Covid recovery efforts. Florida earned interest on those resources, and GOP lawmakers agreed to spend $12 million from that pot of money on the anti-migrant scheme.
There’s some question as to whether that was an appropriate use of resources — and the Treasury Department’s inspector general apparently intends to find an answer to that question.
If the conclusion is that DeSantis misused that money, Florida may very well receive a multimillion-dollar bill from Uncle Sam.
In case this weren’t quite enough, let’s also not forget that the stunt appears to have been at odds with state law, and evidence emerged last week that a key contract was approved in ways that were at odds with state protocols.
In a normal political environment, this would be the sort of controversy that would do dramatic harm to DeSantis’ electoral prospects. After all, he appears to have helped launch a legally dubious scheme that misused public resources to punish desperate migrants who hadn’t done anything wrong.
But in our current political environment, the Florida Republican is favored to win re-election anyway.