TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration needed a company it could trust to carry out a controversial program to transport migrants to other states, it chose an unusual option.
Although Destin-based Vertol Systems Company is in aviation, its primary business is training pilots for the military and providing helicopters across the globe.
But the company was familiar to a key member of the DeSantis administration: Larry Keefe, the state’s “public safety czar” responsible for carrying out the governor’s anti-immigration programs. The company also has a private jet that flew from Florida to San Antonio a week before charter flights took 48 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Before DeSantis hired Keefe, and before he was named U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Northern District by then-President Donald Trump, Keefe represented Vertol Systems in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017.
Keefe led the company’s litigation strategy, suing former employees accused of misusing funds, contractors suspected of stealing company secrets and a local lawn care company that ran over a wire connected to one of the company’s helicopters.
The state has paid Vertol Systems more than $1.56 million to, among other things, arrange last week’s migrant flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, which sparked outrage, a criminal investigation by a local sheriff and a federal lawsuit by some of the migrants.
So far, Keefe’s ties to Vertol Systems are the best explanation of why the state hired the company. The DeSantis administration has disclosed few details about the secretive program, which is being paid for with $12 million in interest earned from federal COVID-19 relief money.
State officials haven’t said how they chose Vertol Systems, whether the state solicited multiple bids for the work as required by the Legislature, or even released the state’s contract with the company.
The governor’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Court documents and other records show the company is active in GOP politics. In addition to Keefe, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whom Keefe hired before Gaetz was elected to Congress, also represented Vertol Systems in two 2010 lawsuits. The company and its owner, James Montgomerie, have given $27,000 to Republican politicians and political committees since 2005.