Federal watchdog scrutinizes use of relief funds in transporting migrants
By Alan Rappeport
The Treasury Department’s inspector general is investigating whether Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida misused pandemic relief money when he orchestrated the transport of two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month.
The inquiry came in response to a request from congressional Democrats, who accused DeSantis, a Republican, of violating federal law by using money the state had been given to combat the impact of the pandemic for what they described as an “inhumane program to relocate newly arrived immigrants out of Florida.” The flights to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, originated in Texas but were paid for by Florida.
“For the sake of the migrants who were lured onto charter planes under false pretenses, and for the commendable commonwealth residents who rallied together to offer support, I hope that this investigation sheds light on whether Gov. DeSantis misused funds that were intended for COVID relief for Floridians,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who was among the lawmakers who requested the investigation.
About 50 migrants arrived on Martha’s Vineyard last month on the Florida-funded flights, escalating a tactic in which Republican-led states, including Texas, have shipped busloads of migrants to liberal enclaves such as Washington and New York to protest the rise in illegal immigration under President Joe Biden.
It is not illegal for states to pay for the travel of immigrants who have been released from federal custody. The maneuver by DeSantis raised questions about the funds that Florida was using, although Treasury guidance suggests the state may be on firm legal footing.
Watchdogs across the federal government have been tracking the use of stimulus funds to root out cases of fraud and improper spending. Despite the Biden administration’s efforts to encourage states to use aid money in ways that are in line with its economic agenda, many used the funds to subsidize tax cuts or other projects unrelated to the pandemic.
Inspectors general and other federal investigators have been scrambling to keep track of the $5 trillion in aid that has been deployed to prop up the economy since the pandemic emerged in 2020. Billions of dollars have been stolen or misused, and states and cities have found ways to work around restrictions that were supposed to be embedded in the law.
The Florida Legislature this year set aside $12 million for a state program to transport immigrants lacking permanent legal status to so-called sanctuary destinations. The program was funded with interest generated from the $8.8 billion in aid that the state had been given through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021.
In a letter to the lawmakers, Richard K. Delmar, the Treasury deputy inspector general, confirmed that his office would look into how the money had been deployed and said he hoped to quickly start work on the matter.
A spokesperson for DeSantis said that the state’s Office of Policy and Budget had already been in touch with Treasury’s inspector general to make clear that using interest from the funds to transport immigrants lacking permanent legal status voluntarily to sanctuary jurisdictions was permissible under the Treasury Department’s guidance.
“Reviews by Treasury are typical,” said Taryn Fenske, communications director for DeSantis.
Despite the inquiry, it appears that Florida’s use of the funds may be allowed under Treasury guidelines.
The Treasury Department created clear rules for how states and cities could use their $350 billion in stimulus funds. However, state and local governments were given broad discretion regarding how the interest generated from that money can be deployed. According to the Treasury Department’s guidance, “recipients can place funds in interest-bearing accounts, do not need to remit interest to Treasury and are not limited to using that interest for eligible uses” under the pandemic grant program.
When DeSantis first proposed relocating immigrants last year, his office noted that the guidance gave him the leeway to use interest on the pandemic aid to fund the program.
Following the relocation of the migrants, Biden accused DeSantis of using human beings as political props. However, the White House said that the two did not discuss the matter last week when Biden visited Florida to assess the damage from Hurricane Ian.
The Biden administration is creating a humanitarian parole program for 24,000 Venezuelans who have been fleeing political instability and poverty. The program would allow sponsors in the United States to apply and commit to providing refugees with financial assistance while they are in the country.