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Company hired to arrange Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' migrant flights is tied to high-level state official

Lawrence Mower, Mary Ellen Klas, Romy Ellenbogen and Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

And she remembers Keefe, who she said was particularly combative — a reputation he had in the area, she said.

Smith, who now works in South Florida, said she can’t speak to how Vertol Systems operates, but that Keefe would “argue about anything just to be right.”

She said it didn’t surprise her to find out the company was involved in the migrant flights.

In 2017, Keefe was chosen by Trump to be the U.S. attorney for Florida’s Northern District, overseeing federal prosecutions for the state’s Panhandle and Gainesville.

Keefe’s law firm dropped his name but continued representing Vertol Systems.

In 2020, the firm sued a Crestview employee it claimed violated the company’s non-disclosure agreement. The employee claimed the violation came from sending photos of workplace hazards to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The court sided with Vertol Systems, and the employee was ordered to destroy or turn over any materials.

That same year, a New Zealand pilot who crashed one of the company’s helicopters while working for a tuna fishery in the Marshall Islands sued the company, claiming he was still owed more than $16,000. Three days later, the company sued the pilot, claiming the crash was because of negligent and/or reckless operation. That case is still open.

And in 2019, Vertol took an aggressive approach after a pilot crashed and died during a fish-spotting expedition near Micronesia.

 

Jeffrey Lynn LaVere, a 39-year-old former U.S. Army sergeant who served in the military for 17 years, was working for Vertol Systems as a contracted pilot.

About one year after his death, his wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Oregon, where Vertol Systems was based. She said that four days before her husband’s crash, he had texted her “expressing his concerns about the poor condition of the helicopter,” according to court documents.

Seven days later, Vertol Systems filed its own lawsuit against the wife, claiming that she, as the representative of her husband’s estate, owed the company money because the helicopter was damaged.

In the complaint, Vertol Systems attorneys said the crash was “solely the result of LaVere’s negligence and recklessness.”

Attorneys for LaVere’s wife criticized the company’s lawyers for legal maneuvering that included removing her as an administrator for her husband’s estate — and installing their own person as a replacement.

“Our client is a young widow who has suffered greatly,” her attorney told Vertol’s Oregon attorneys, according to that state’s case file. “Your client seems intent on increasing that suffering.” A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot’s failure to maintain clearance above the surface of the ocean.” The lawsuits were dropped, with both sides paying their own attorney’s fees.

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©2022 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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