Federal watchdog probes whether covid aid enabled Florida’s migrant flight


HR King
May 29, 2001
A federal watchdog is investigating whether Florida improperly tapped coronavirus aid to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, part of a widening government inquiry into states that put their pandemic dollars toward controversial immigration crackdowns.

The inspector general for the Treasury Department confirmed its new interest in a letter sent last week to Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and other members of Congress, who had expressed concern that the spending approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “violates federal law.”

Federal covid aid enabled Florida to pay for migrant flights
The probe comes roughly a month after Florida flew dozens of migrants, including children, from Texas to Massachusetts, in the latest example of a Republican-led state sending people from other countries to Democratic-leaning communities.

To pay for the flights, DeSantis said he would tap a $12 million fund in the state’s recent budget. But that money came from the interest Florida had earned on the more than $8 billion it received under the last federal stimulus package, called the American Rescue Plan, The Washington Post reported as part of its year-long investigation into the pandemic aid, known as the Covid Money Trail.

The approach immediately generated legal debate, not the least because the flights originated in Texas. It also raised new questions about the state of stimulus oversight in Washington, where Congress gave local governments great latitude to spend their allocations as they saw fit. The Treasury Department said even less about how states could use the interest generated on the money while it remained unspent, potentially opening the door for Florida’s maneuver.
Asked about the probe, the White House referred the matter to the Treasury Department, which declined to comment. Its inspector general confirmed the letter, but otherwise declined to comment. Spokespeople for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.

In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.

Read more
The investigation into the spending in Florida is only the latest inquiry targeting federal aid in Republican-led states. The Treasury Department’s top watchdog previously announced it would review whether Texas acted improperly when it used a different budgetary move to take advantage of federal coronavirus relief funds to ease the costs of border enforcement, as The Post first reported earlier this year.


In both cases, the probes involve emergency federal programs that were meant to give local governments great flexibility to respond to public health and economic needs. Repeatedly, though, GOP leaders have put the money toward unrelated purposes and political pet projects — from constructing a new prison in Atlanta to pursuing tax cuts in Florida and elsewhere that, at minimum, violate the spirit of the congressional relief efforts.
How federal pandemic aid helped Texas pay for its border crackdown
In Florida, critics beginning last month described the approach as wasteful, arguing that federal money might have been better put toward improving local education, boosting hospitals or otherwise helping low-income residents. In Massachusetts, where Florida sent the migrants, Markey and other Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Seth Moulton and Ayanna Pressley described the flights a “political stunt,” which they added “runs contrary to congressional intent.”

“While the rule was designed to provide flexibility to state and local governments, Congress neither intended to allow, or authorized, state governments to use the SLFRF funds for immigration enforcement,” the lawmakers wrote in a September letter to the inspector general requesting the probe. The acronym, SLFRF, refers to the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, the $350 billion program under the American Rescue Plan that awarded Florida the money in question.

In response, the chief watchdog for the Treasury Department responded on Oct. 7, acknowledging in a letter it is seeking “more detailed analysis” from the agency on its guidelines.
“We will review the allowability of use of SLFRF funds related to immigration generally, and will specifically confirm whether interest earned on SLFRF was utilized by Florida related to immigration activities, and if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” wrote Richard K. Delmar, the deputy inspector general.



HR King
May 29, 2001
If a Republican governor with presidential ambitions were to get nabbed misusing federal funds in the quest to “own the libs,” would this be politically problematic for him at all? Or would the flagrant willingness to abuse the levers of power toward that hallowed end be seen as an undiluted positive by the voters and media elites he cares about?

Sign up for a weekly roundup of thought-provoking ideas and debates

This question is likely to be answered soon, now that the Treasury Department inspector general is investigating whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) improperly drew from a fund created by the 2021 covid-19 rescue act to help states recover from the pandemic when he flew migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
The flights — which originated in Texas — were paid for by interest earned on that covid money. The state of Florida budgeted a total of $12 million of that interest for a program for transporting migrants, around $600,000 of which reportedly funded the flights to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis has threatened to pay for future flights with remaining funds.

But now Treasury’s inspector general is examining whether this use of covid-related funding for immigration purposes is improper. Under federal law, misuse would mean the state owes an equivalent amount back to the federal government, according to the office of Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who requested the probe.
Image without a caption

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

This, all because DeSantis badly wanted to play catch-up with fellow Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who’s basking in Fox News love for busing thousands of migrants to other liberal strongholds.
The whole saga has devolved into an utter farce. The $12 million fund was specifically earmarked for the transport of migrants “from this state,” which apparently required DeSantis to fly the migrants to Florida first before heading on to Massachusetts. The program has been hit with a lawsuit alleging the migrants were misled in a pageant of slapstick buffoonery.

The stunt’s underlying rationale was nonsense. The flights were supposed to rub liberals’ faces in the burden that border states bear due to allegedly permissive policy on asylum seekers, but blue states are already home to a large share of migrants awaiting asylum hearings.
In short, DeSantis has “owned the libs” by redirecting money earmarked for covid recovery to a political gesture that’s entirely empty, has no real underlying rationale and was manufactured as cruelty theater for the Fox News primary electorate.
Yet it could get even more absurd. If Treasury’s inspector general were to find the expenditure is unlawful, it could mean not only the end of the flights, as Markey’s office notes, but also that this lib-owning exercise could end up owning Florida taxpayers instead.

Let’s say that does happen. Would it hurt DeSantis politically? Probably not.

One main DeSantis selling point for 2024 is that he’s the perfect vehicle to co-opt the MAGA energies unleashed by Donald Trump. This stunt signaled to Republican voters that he would be as cruel as Trump to migrants. DeSantis has also carefully displayed his willingness to use state power to target other assorted leftist enemies, such as “woke” corporations and teachers who say too much about sex and gender in the classroom.
Such displays also seem aimed at GOP and conservative elites who are looking for someone to harness those energies without Trump’s political self-sabotage. There’s an elite intellectual component to this as well: As Jonathan Chait reports, the most recent National Conservatism Conference featured leading conservative thinkers gushing about the DeSantis governorship as the model for a future authoritarian right wing presidency.

Chait captures a striking moment from the conference, in which DeSantis’s chief propagandist, Christina Pushaw, describes the marginalization of independent media organizations as a crucial task ahead for this budding authoritarian right, which entails destroying their reputation as objective:

This reputation, she believes, comes from the perception that they have access to both parties, so the correct response by Republicans is to freeze out the mainstream media. “If they have no access to any Republican elected officials, they are seen for what they are,” she proposed. Pushaw stressed that Republicans should not even concede that reporters are journalists at all.
When DeSantis signed onerous state voting restrictions, he gave exclusive access to Fox News. And when those migrant planes landed in Martha’s Vineyard, video of this glorious event was promptly leaked to Fox, apparently by DeSantis’s staff.
DeSantis does this not only to pump this thrilling content directly into the veins of the national GOP electorate, but also to send the message that he is forcefully marginalizing the liberal media in the process.

Central to this politics is the depiction of all our institutions — the news media, universities, our elections, the immigration bureaucracy, the “deep state” — as irredeemably corrupted by leftism, justifying the use of expansive state power from the right in response.
So if DeSantis did abuse federal funds to depict migrants as a diseased other that would inevitably be hated wherever they were dropped off — and to provoke liberal outrage in response, never mind that the outrage was about how the migrants were abused by DeSantis — well, so what? Using pandemic money in a way that got a few pointy-headed federal bureaucrats upset just shows he’s willing to do what it takes to fight the enemy.
It seems highly likely that if Treasury’s inspector general finds that federal dollars were misused, DeSantis would just wear it as a badge of honor.