- Former federal prosecutors say criminal laws may have been broken during the transport of migrants.
- They say kidnapping, human trafficking, or civil rights laws may have been violated in the DeSantis-led operation.
- But whether there will be legal consequences is another question.
Former federal prosecutors say Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have broken criminal laws when he sent Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. But whether there will be legal consequences is another question.
"I see this all landing in a congressional hearing, if I'm totally honest with you," said Bianca Forde, a former assistant US attorney in Washington, DC. "And I see this being played out in the polls and in what Florida voters decide to do with their current governor."
Former prosecutors say violations of kidnapping, human trafficking, or civil rights laws may have occurred when the migrants seeking asylum were promised, according to their allegations, employment and assistance in Boston but were instead left stranded in Martha's Vineyard, a tony island south of Cape Cod known as a haven for wealthy progressives.
A group of migrants already sued DeSantis, alleging they were duped "to advance a political motive," a Florida Democratic state senator has also filed a lawsuit, and a Texas sheriff has opened a criminal investigation. Pressure is mounting from Democrats for a federal investigation.
But criminality in this case, while "highly likely," is still unclear, and federal prosecutors may want to avoid a "political mess," especially in light of the federal investigation into former President Donald Trump's alleged mishandling of classified documents, said Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice and former senior staffer with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.
"DOJ tends to steer clear of highly politicized issues, particularly where it's not very clear criminality," said Levin, known for representing clients including Harvey Weinstein and Anna Sorokin.
The first thing Republicans would say is, "You went after our top two candidates for president," said Ron Filipkowski, a former federal prosecutor and a DeSantis critic in Florida who monitors Trump's base online.
The Florida Republican governor has taken credit for chartering two planes last week to transport about 50 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha's Vineyard, in a stunt to protest President Joe Biden's immigration policies. He says they went voluntarily and his office provided a copy of a consent form that one signed.
"If that were presented in front of a jury, it would not be helpful to him — to claim responsibility for it," Levin told Insider.
It's "highly likely" that this conduct violated some state or federal criminal statute and "there's enough there" to warrant an investigation, Levin said. "Either he or whoever was responsible for this political stunt should be held to account for it," he said.
Former prosecutors say the allegations of deception would be a key factor in an investigation. People working with DeSantis gave the migrants $10 McDonalds gift certificates to gain their trust as part of a "scheme" to fly them to Martha's Vineyard, according to the migrants' lawsuit. They were put up in a hotel away from the migrant center where they were found and falsely told they were flying to Boston or Washington, DC, where they would receive help.
If a US Attorney's Office were to open an investigation, they would issue warrants for communications that enabled this to occur and witnesses could be called to testify before a grand jury, Forde said. "What would have to be established is DeSantis' actual link to all of these activities and to this conduct," she said.
For DeSantis to be implicated, Forde said "there would have to be reason to believe that DeSantis organized and authorized this plan where deception was the core mechanism of carrying out the scheme."
The laws potentially at issue
The three former prosecutors interviewed by Insider each suggested different criminal laws that could have been violated in this operation.
Levin said one possibility is human trafficking laws, even though he said those statutes are intended for cases of sex trafficking or human trafficking for profit.
On the federal level, Ford said a possible charge is kidnapping, given that the migrants were allegedly promised things that DeSantis and his team were not capable of providing in Massachusetts, where no authorities were expecting them. "That's a decoy, that's inveigling," which is part of the kidnapping statute, she said.
"Whether a federal prosecutor's office or a state prosecutor's office is going to go forward with that kind of charge against a sitting governor, we'll see," she said.
Rather than human trafficking or kidnapping, Filipkowski said the charge could be a federal civil rights violation. The statute applies to anyone in the US, whether they're citizens or not, he said.
"I don't think they thought everything through and it wouldn't shock me that they violated a bunch of laws in the process," he said.
Filipkowski said the sheriff investigating the case in Bexar County, Texas could bring a case against the people who recruited the migrants in his county. Anything outside of that would have to involve federal authorities, he said.
But Levin said what DeSantis orchestrated may run afoul of state laws. If investigators in Bexar County determine DeSantis broke Texas criminal law, they'll likely have to consider the prospect of extraditing a governor to their state to answer charges. But there's nothing stopping them as county officials from bringing charges against him.
"Just because he's a governor doesn't give him any special immunity," he said.