Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024
Former pilot says the FAA appears to be investigating Florida’s top law enforcement agency


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A former state pilot says he has been interviewed as part of an investigation being conducted by President Joe Biden’s administration into Florida’s top police agency.

The scrutiny centers around the aviation unit, which earlier this year admitted that a policy of carrying out flights to stop migrants from coming into the Florida Keys — which was championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — put its own pilots in danger.

The potential investigation into the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is mentioned in a letter dated Dec. 2, which was sent to Florida’s chief inspector general by former FDLE pilot Robert Robbins.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, Robbins outlined a series of alleged policy and legal violations, including DeSantis’ hand-picked FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass flying a helicopter without having the proper license.

Robbins also said he was contacted by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of an investigation into safety concerns with the FDLE’s aviation unit.

“There are many more examples of unsafe operations which I believe place those who utilize FDLE aviation at risk. This includes the governor,” Robbins wrote in his letter to Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel. “Further, I have become aware of an FAA investigation into the activities of FDLE’s aviation unit.”

“Although I was not the reporter to the FAA, I was contacted by the FAA investigator and interviewed about safety issues,” he continued.

An FAA spokesman said the “FAA neither confirms or comments on investigations.”

A spokesman for DeSantis’ office, which houses the chief inspector general’s office, did not respond to a request seeking comment.

The FDLE said it has not heard from the chief inspector general’s office but could not comment on ongoing investigations. The agency also did not comment on any of Robbins’ specific allegations.

Robbins did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Alan Armstrong, a Georgia-based aviation attorney with more than 30 years of experience — including cases involving the FAA — reviewed Robbins’ letter at the request of NBC News.

“With this many allegations, if true, I would expect a wholesale audit of the department. I would not be surprised if the feds sent a team down to look at these records and try to figure out what is going on,” Armstrong said. “If any are true, I would expect violations to come out of any investigations.”

“This looks like a little scandal,” he added.

Robbins has been involved in a legal fight with the FDLE for more than a year over what he says is “retribution” after he tried to bring attention to safety issues, which included the alleged unsafe operation of FDLE planes and hiring of unqualified pilots.

The FDLE has said he left Tallahassee when he was scheduled to serve as an on-call pilot for DeSantis and his family, and at one point it had suspended him for three days. That suspension was later overturned and replaced with a written reprimand, which Robbins told the state he still disagrees with. He has maintained that he did nothing wrong, records show.

Among the specific allegations outlined in Robbins’ seven-page letter to the inspector general is that while in a previous role with the department, Glass — who was elevated to lead the FDLE at DeSantis’ urging in August 2022 — flew surplus helicopters given to the department without having a proper license.

Robbins’ letter noted that Glass does not have a pilot’s license, a fact confirmed by an NBC News search of the FAA database.

Armstrong, the aviation attorney, said “that’s not cool,” when responding to the idea that someone would fly a helicopter without being properly licensed.

“That is pretty darn serious,” he said. “If these allegations are true, it appears that flight department is operated in an unprofessional, unsafe manner.”

Robbins’ letter also discusses immigration flights that have been taking place off the Florida Keys since DeSantis signed an executive order in January activating the Florida National Guard and state law enforcement to watch for immigrants coming ashore, a mission that included flights over the waters off the Keys to look for boats of migrants. It was seen as an escalation of his political fight with the White House ahead of an expected run for president.

NBC News reported in August that as part of those missions, FDLE pilots were expected to fly a single-engine Cessna significantly further offshore in search of migrant vessels than is allowed, a violation of the FDLE’s own policy. The policy, experts said, put the pilots’ lives in danger. The FDLE later admitted the policy was a safety hazard and started leasing a better-suited plane for the missions.

The FDLE began playing a larger role in DeSantis’ political agenda as his profile grew nationally and he prepared to run for president. Along with coordinating key aspects of his immigration agenda, including the Florida Keys flights, it has helped enforce charges brought by a controversial election investigations office the governor created in 2022 and increased the use of department resources for DeSantis’ security as he traveled the country in the lead-up to his presidential bid.

DeSantis’ office has said in the past that the increased security was needed due to increased security threats as his profile grew.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com



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