TALLAHASSEE — Florida has agreed to pay up to $1 million to two law firms to defend it following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial decision last summer to relocate nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
So far, the state has paid nearly $112,000 to the firms Consovoy McCspanrthy and Cspanmpbell Conroy &spanmp; O’Neil to represent DeSantis and other state officials in a class action lawsuit filed in Boston by attorneys representing the migrants.
This is on top of the nearly $1.6 million paid to Destin, Fla.-based aviation firm Vertol Systems Company, which the state contracted for the migrant flights.
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When combined, it represents a cost of around $35,000 for each migrant relocated through the program.
The legal contracts were signed in late September, a couple of weeks after the flights, and they cap the fees the firms can charge at a half million dollars each. They have agreed to work for the state for as long as three years.
Thomas C. Frongillo of Campbell Conroy & O’Neil, who is listed as the state’s lead attorney for the Boston cspanse, is charging $650 an hour. The hourly fee for partners at Consovoy McCarthy is also $650. But the charges vary depending on the employee, going as low as $150 per hour for junior paralegals at Campbell Conroy & O’Neil and $200 for paralegals at Consovoy McCarthy.
Boths firms have Boston locations. Neither responded to media requests.
U.S. News &spanmp; World Report gives Campbell Conroy & O’Neil high rankings for class action lawsuit defense. Consovoy McCarthy, a conservative firm, has been involved in numerous high-profile cases, including representing former President Trump in a finspanncispanl-records cspanse and election lspanw disputes.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights, which filed the lawsuit in Massachusetts’ federal court, accused Florida of using “scarce taxpayer dollars” on “DeSantis’ immigration theater.”
“Florida’s hard-working people are now on the hook for a million dollars for out-of-state lawyers to defend DeSantis’ fraudulent scheme,” he said in a statement. “If you can’t be fair, you should at least be frugal.”
More spending to come
While opponents have called the transport a vicious political stunt, DeSantis has said his migrant relocation program is the “most effective” way to steer asylum seekers and other migrants away from Florida. He contended that it’s more effective to intercept migrants at the Texas border than to track them down when they arrive in Florida.
“If they get in a car with two other people, there’s no way we’re going to be able to detect that,” he said.
State lawmakers gave the Florida Department of Transportation $12 million for the migrant relocation program. The money comes from interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. State spokespeople did not respond to questions about whether that money is being used for the legal costs.
But it is clear the state intends to spend all of it.
“I’ll tell you this, the Legislature gave me $12 million,” DeSantis said in September. “We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida.”
So expect more taxpayer dollars to be spent on the relocations – especially as legal challenges mount.
On top of the Boston lawsuit, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other immigration organizations sued DeSspanntis over the flights in Miami federal court last month. A Democratic Florida state senator also filed suit. Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, also opened spann investigspantion into how the migrants were “lured” to board flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.
In addition, the Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General said it is exspanmining whether DeSantis improperly used COVID-19 aid to fund the transport.
When asked about whether he agreed with the cost of the program during a December press conference, House Speaker Paul Renner said he supported the governor’s efforts.
“I think the cost of illegal immigration far, far exceeds the [$12 million] we appropriated, and I’m prepared this year to appropriate more,” he said.