DeSantis Aide Used Back Channel in Migrant Flight Talks

Larry Keefe, Fla. governor's safety czar, was known as 'Clarice Starling' in messages to Vertol Systems
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 28, 2022 12:18 PM CST
DeSantis Aide's Code Name in Migrant Talks: 'Clarice Starling'
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Nov. 19 in Las Vegas.   (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

A top aide to Ron DeSantis might be known as Larry Keefe in real life, but in a secret back channel he used with a contractor that was seeking a deal to transport migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, he called himself by a more familiar name: "Clarice Starling," which film buffs will recognize from the 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs. That's the moniker that Keefe, DeSantis' public safety czar, used in communications earlier this year between himself and James Montgomerie, the CEO of Vertol Systems Company, a former client that was vying for the million-dollar-plus state contract to run Florida's migrant flight program, per NBC Miami, citing records released Thursday by DeSantis' office.

Using a personal Gmail account with the Starling name, Keefe corresponded with Montgomerie for three weeks in late August and early September. "This is the email channel to use," Keefe wrote to Montgomerie on Aug. 26. The Tampa Bay Times notes that the emails "show a close relationship" between Keefe, a former attorney in the Trump administration, and Vertol, a company he repped for years in private practice. In fact, much of the language Keefe used in his emails to Vertol ended up being used by Vertol, almost word for word, in its official bid for the migrant transport contract. DeSantis' office has said it hadn't been aware of Keefe's back-channel email account until recently.

Montgomerie, meanwhile, in response to a lawsuit demanding all records tied to the migrants' transport, testified last month that his company had turned over "every single" record. However, he didn't turn over the emails sent to his AOL account from "Clarice Starling." Those emails didn't go public until after a "wrangling between the governor's office" and the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability, per the Times. The 50 or so migrants arrived in Martha's Vineyard on Sept. 14. Per state records, Vertol has so far been paid more than $1.5 million for its services—$615,000 to transport the migrants from Texas to Massachusetts, as well as another $950,000 for two similar trips to Delaware and Illinois that have yet to take place. Much more here and here. (The migrants, mostly from Venezuela, are now suing DeSantis.)

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