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

A federal watchdog is investigating whether Florida improperly used coronavirus aid to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, part of a widening government probe into states putting their pandemic dollars toward controversial immigration responses.

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

Federal covid aid allowed Florida to pay for migrant flights

The investigation comes about a month after Florida flew dozens of migrants, including children, from Texas to Massachusetts, in the latest example of a Republican-led state sending migrants to Democratic communities.

To pay for the flights, DeSantis said he would use a $12 million fund in the state’s most 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 yearlong investigation into the pandemic aid, known as Covid Money Trail.

The approach immediately created legal debate, not 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 leeway to use their allocations as they saw fit. The Treasury Department said even less about how states could spend the interest generated on the money while it remained unused, potentially opening the door for Florida’s maneuver.

Asked about the investigation, 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. Spokesmen for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Covid Money Trail

It was the largest burst of emergency spending in American history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion aimed at breaking the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the American economy from ruin and put vaccines in millions of guns, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.

In a year-long investigation, The Washington Post follows the covid money trail to find out what happened to all that money.

Read more

The Florida spending probe is just the latest investigation 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 another budget move to take advantage of federal coronavirus aid to ease border enforcement costs, as The Post first reported earlier this year.

In both cases, the probes involve federal emergency programs that were intended to give local governments great flexibility to respond to public health and economic needs. Repeatedly, however, GOP leaders have spent the money on unrelated causes and political pet projects — from building a prison in Atlanta to pursuing tax cuts in Florida and elsewhere — that at minimum violate the spirit of congressional relief efforts.

How federal pandemic aid helped Texas pay for its border crackdown

In Florida, critics described the approach as wasteful, arguing that federal money could have been better spent 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, the flights as a “political stunt” that they said “goes against the intent of Congress.”

“Although the rule was designed to provide flexibility to state and local governments, Congress neither intended nor authorized state governments to use the SLFRF funds for immigration enforcement,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter last month to the inspector general, requesting that probe. SLFRF refers to the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, the $350 billion program under the US bailout that awarded Florida the money in question.

The Treasury Department’s top watchdog responded Friday, acknowledging in a letter that it is seeking “more detailed analysis” from the agency on its guidelines.

“We will review the possibility of use of SLFRF funds related to immigration in general, and will specifically confirm whether interest earned on the SLFRF was used by Florida in connection with immigration activities and, if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” wrote Richard K. Delmar, the deputy inspector general.

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