An aviation company awarded a $615,000 contract by the Florida Department of Transportation for the relocation of migrants purchased aircraft in 2018 from a Russian government entity recently sanctioned by the U.S. for its material support to the Russian military.
Forensic News reviewed corporate and shipping records to confirm the transactions.
The move to relocate dozens of migrants seeking asylum to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts made by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis captured the nation’s attention and drew sharp criticism from civil rights groups, among others.
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On September 8th, the Florida Department of Transportation awarded a contract for the migrant relocation program to Vertol Systems Company Inc (VSC), an aviation company based in Destin, Florida. One week later, on Wednesday, private flights took approximately 48 Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
James Montgomerie VSC in 1996 in Oregon, but corporate documents show that it became a Florida corporation in late 2021.
Little is known about Montgomerie, who could not immediately be reached for comment. As first reported by Judd Legum, Montgomerie and/or VSC have donated thousands to Matt Gaetz and the Republican Party of Florida.
Archived versions of VSC’s website, which was deleted sometime after the last capture on August 2nd, show that the company claimed that it was “the only civil company currently operating Russian helicopters in the United States.” That was first spotted by Twitter user @fanofwalt.
Shipping records obtained by Forensic News support this claim. Most of the records indicate that VSC has imported parts and equipment from a little-known Ukrainian company called Avexcom, whose ultimate beneficiary could not be established. Avexcom does not appear to have a website and its shareholder is a Ukrainian lawyer who has registered numerous companies.
Other bills of lading, however, show that VSC has imported helicopters directly from Russian government-owned corporations.
On December 13, 2018, VSC imported into the Destin Executive Airport six helicopters from the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant in Russia’s Far East district of Buryatia. The total price of the transaction was $48 million according to the bill of lading. The document includes a description of the products shipped in Cyrillic which translates to, “HELICOPTERS: WITH MORE THAN 2000 KG EMPTY WEIGHT, CIVIL.”
The Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant is a subsidiary company of Russian Helicopters, a state-owned holding company controlled by the government conglomerate Rostec.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned both Russian Helicopters and the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant in 2022 for providing support to the Russian military after its illegal invasion of Ukraine. The Treasury Department said that “helicopters produced by this company are used by Russia in its war against Ukraine,” and added that Russian Helicopters and its subsidiaries, “carry out the work required to design, produce, and maintain these lethal weapons.”
The 2018 deal was not the only VSC transaction with a Russian-government-connected company. In 2019 and 2020, VSC purchased various products, including helicopter blades and other airplane parts from another Russian company called Aerotec.
Around the time it was supplying parts to VSC, Aerotec was fulfilling multiple contracts with Russian government bodies. A review of the company’s financials filed in Russia reveals at least 18 contracts with various Russian state enterprises, the most prominent of which is the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation. The total value of the contracts is approximately 340 million rubles.
Aerotec has been entangled in an embezzlement scandal after its former finance director allegedly signed a bogus contract with the state and siphoned off the proceeds. The lack of action against Aerotec’s founders, who have ties to senior Russian government officials, has led some to speculate that the company is protected by the Kremlin.
“Behind Aerotec,” the Moscow Post postulated, “are such influential people that no one dares to bring claims against them.”
VSC has also completed contracts for the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies, though the value and frequency of those contracts decreased significantly after 2014 when Russian forces annexed Crimea. For U.S. government clients, VSC has provided flight training services, according to federal contract descriptions and one person familiar with the situation.
It is unclear in what capacity VSC has used the helicopters purchased from the Russian government.
Adding to the confusion, the two aircraft that transported the migrants, first from Texas to Florida and then to Massachusetts, were actually owned by Ultimate Jet Charters LLC, a company that has made the news previously for flying former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to conduct government business.
Such charters typically cost a fraction of the price awarded to VSC, who appears to have acted as a middleman in the transaction.
VSC’s equipment, much of it imported from Russia or Ukraine, has a history of faltering. A 2011 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) review found that a VSC fixed-wing aircraft crashed into a field after experiencing a “total” loss of engine power. The pilot, “heard a loud, ‘metal-on-metal’ sound,” the NTSB reported.
“The engine vibrated violently, and it subsequently quit completely. The airplane was force landed in a farm field and nosed over in the soft terrain.” The three people aboard the plane were not injured. The plane suffered substantial damage.
The Florida Department of Transportation did not immediately return an email seeking comment on VSC.