Former Florida police official says he was forced out for refusing governor’s ‘unlawful’ orders

A former top Florida law enforcement official is claiming he was pressured several times by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his deputies to carry out “unlawful” activity, including collecting information about migrants and arresting neo-Nazi demonstrators without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The allegations are outlined in a 16-page lawsuit filed this week by Shane Desguin, the former chief of staff for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in which he accuses the state agency and DeSantis of wrongful termination and retaliation for questioning several “unlawful directives” — many of them tied to the governor’s political priorities.

One of those directives came from a senior aide to DeSantis around September 2023. According to the complaint, the aide told Desguin that the governor — who was running for president at the time — wanted state police to arrest neo-Nazi demonstrators in Orlando under a state law that prohibits people from projecting images on property without permission.

Desguin argued that state police couldn’t arrest someone engaging in an activity protected by the First Amendment just because DeSantis “desired it,” according to the complaint.

“I don’t think you understand,” the aide — Alex Kelly, at the time DeSantis’ chief of staff — told Desguin, according to the complaint. “If you look hard enough, you can find a way. The Governor [DeSantis] wants someone arrested today. He will stand by you in any arrest.”

The pressure campaign alleged in the complaint extended to requests to obtain photos and personal information of migrants without legal justification and to withhold public records related to DeSantis’ travels — and culminated in Desguin being forced out of his post in November 2023, the lawsuit claims.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the alleged directives, saying those arguments will be made in “legal filings.” But the governor’s spokesman, Bryan Griffin, said a state investigation found “disturbing” violations of state rules related to insubordination and workplace conduct. The investigation, launched by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, was finalized in May.

Marie Mattox, a prominent employment and civil rights attorney in Tallahassee representing Desguin, told the Herald/Times on Thursday that the timeline of the state investigation is further evidence that DeSantis and FDLE “doubled down on [Desguin] after he left to smear his good name.”

“They really have no choice but to try to cast doubt on his character because they cannot defend the charges that he made on the merits. So what do they do? They point the finger at him AFTER he was cleared of wrongdoing,” Mattox said in an email.

According to the lawsuit, Desguin was given the choice of retiring or being fired in November of last year. When he left, he received an affidavit of separation that said the reason for his departure was “Retired. Not involving misconduct.”

“The fact that Desguin was cleared of wrongdoing on November 17, 2023, is golden and shows that the concoction of mistruths and half-truths are just that — to cover up what DeSantis did wrong,” Mattox added.

Desguin stepped down from his post after more than 30 years with the state’s law enforcement agency, shortly after he raised concerns about the state agency delaying the release of public records requested by reporters that would have revealed who traveled with the governor on the state plane and where it went.

His lawsuit was filed under Florida’s Whistleblower Act. Desguin’s then-deputy chief of staff, Patricia Carpenter, was also allegedly forced out when she sought whistleblower status for raising the same concerns about the public records.

Read more: State police officials say Florida governor’s staff targeted them over flight records

Florida has a broad public records law that allows news outlets and the public to request information on state and local governments. The law is broader than what exists in many other states.

But DeSantis has tried to curtail those laws for several years now.

Most recently, lawyers for DeSantis have tried to block the public’s access to records showing phone calls about state business made on officials’ private cell phones — a dramatic change to the state’s long-standing interpretation of the state’s public records laws.

So when it came to releasing records about the governor’s taxpayer-funded plane travel, Desguin claims he ran into some trouble. He was of the opinion that the records should be released, because they did not pose a risk to the governor, his family or anyone else, as intended under the law.

DeSantis disagreed — and Desguin claims he was told the records were not to be released.

The episode indicated an unusual level of involvement by the governor in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is supposed to have some level of independence despite carrying out some of the governor’s top priorities, such as the elections police force and his immigration crackdown. The department does not report directly to the governor.

Rather, it reports to the governor and Cabinet — the state’s attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.

The governor’s office involvement in state police matters went beyond state records, according to the lawsuit. Most of the problems, Desguin claims, began in late 2021 when he was put in charge of dealing with immigration — a top priority for DeSantis.

Desguin said that DeSantis’ former public safety czar, Larry Keefe, ordered him to get “photographs, biometric data, and any other pertinent information” by engaging with migrants at the airport.

Concerned about the legality of the requests, Desguin objected — and Keefe persisted, according to the lawsuits.

Desguin alleges that he told Keefe that FDLE “could not legally conduct name checks, capture photographs or compile intelligence files without a criminal predicate or reasonable suspicion, as though action would be unlawful.”

“On multiple occasions, Keefe informed [Desguin] that he was growing weary of his constant emphasis on reasonable suspicion and criminal predicate,” the lawsuit says. “Keefe conveyed that failure to comply with his directives would result in adverse consequences for [him].”

On another occasion, DeSantis requested that his staff meet with Desguin to discuss the governor’s plan to relocate migrants to destinations outside of Florida.

“Various proposals were entertained, including transporting migrants across state lines via bus and flying them to sanctuary states,” the lawsuit says, noting that Desguin “voiced multiple objections during these meetings in which he was requested to participate in the proposed bus transportation, citing concerns about potential false imprisonment or kidnapping.”

DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, pressed Desguin on this matter, the lawsuit states. He told him that it was important to do at least “one flight” as part of the program — which had become a cornerstone of the governor’s immigration platform.

After that, Keefe went to Texas.

And with the help of a private contractor, Keefe, and Uthmeier were able to coordinate an operation out of Texas that led a group of roughly 50 migrants to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.