Chattanooga police say DeSantis vehicles in motorcade crash were rentals, not government owned

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis poses with law enforcement officials after a news conference at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park , Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, on Key Biscayne, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

NASHVILLE — Four vehicles in the July 25 crash of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' motorcade in Chattanooga were rented in Georgia and not "government vehicles" as initially described in a Chattanooga Police Department news release.

A police report shows the sport utility vans were rented in College Park, Georgia, near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The report lists the owner as PV Holdings. The holding company owns Avis and Budget vehicle rental firms, among other rental companies.

A fifth vehicle, a Tennessee Highway Patrol vehicle, was in the lead, escorting DeSantis and his entourage to a Chattanooga fundraiser.

Chattanooga was one of three Tennessee fundraising stops DeSantis made that day on his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination along with stops in Knoxville and Franklin.

The THP vehicle was not involved in the crash, which occurred when the motorcade abruptly came up on slow traffic near the 2.8-mile marker on Interstate 75.

A DeSantis campaign aide suffered minor injuries in the mishap and was treated at the Chattanooga home of the couple holding the fundraiser.

Nine people, including DeSantis and the campaign staffer, were in the four vehicles. Seven of them listed in the report, including the four SUV drivers, match the names of special agents or inspectors with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement by the the state of Florida Employee Salaries website.

It remains unclear who paid for the rentals.

DeSantis campaign Deputy Press Secretary Gloria Taylor did not respond to questions about whether the campaign was picking up the tab on the vehicle rentals or would reimburse the state for security expenses associated with accompanying DeSantis on a political trip to Tennessee.

Gretl Plessinger with the Florida Law Enforcement's Protection Operations Section said in an email Wednesday state law directs the agency to provide security for the governor and other dignitaries.

"FDLE provides this service at all times (during working and nonworking hours)," Plessinger wrote. "The statute also directs FDLE to produce an annual report providing a fiscal accounting of transportation and protective services."

The next report is due Aug. 15.

Chattanooga police spokesman Kevin West, who recently was hired by the department, said he rushed out the initial release amid calls and emails from local and state news organizations as well as national media seeking information.

"It was my mistake, and it was a stupid, rookie mistake" during his first few days with the department, West said in an interview. "What the investigator was trying to tell me verbally when they said 'government vehicles' — they were not civilian vehicles involved. They were all part of the governor's motorcade. I goofed that word without following up on the actual ownership."

The mistaken information was apparently used for news reports in Florida and even internationally with headlines like "DeSantis car crash revealed misuse of government vehicles."

The actual police report's narrative says the accident involving a "Dignitary Motorcade" occurred at 8:06 a.m.

A collision first occurred between two vehicles ahead of the motorcade, forcing the Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper leading the motorcade to "brake quickly behind that crash."

Vehicle one in the motorcade was a GMC Yukon with DeSantis and "staff members," the police crash report states.

"It stopped behind the marked THP vehicle without making contact," the report says.

A second motorcade SUV, a Nissan Armada, also came to an abrupt stop behind vehicle one.

A third SUV in the motorcade, a Ford Expedition, was able to come to an abrupt stop behind vehicle two the report reads.

"Vehicle 4, a Chevy Traverse, the fourth SUV in the motorcade, was unable to stop quickly enough and rear-ended vehicle 3, knocking it into vehicle 2 which was pushed into vehicle 1," the report says.

Three of the DeSantis-rented vehicles wound up being towed.

Lucy Pratt, who co-hosted the fundraiser at her Chattanooga home, told The New York Times following the event that DeSantis appeared in good spirits when he arrived.

"We were happy that he arrived safely and that he was OK," she said in what was described as a brief phone interview. "He came and he spoke to us and we had a delightful morning."

Efforts to reach Pratt by the Chattanooga Times Free Press were unsuccessful.

Brad Martin, a former Tennessee Republican representative from Knoxville who now lives in Chattanooga and was at the event, said by phone Friday that DeSantis mentioned the mishap "just in passing; he said everything's fine."

With regard to the fundraiser, Martin said, "From my perspective, I thought it was a very very good event. I think it was successful financially ... and I think that Gov. DeSantis made it very clear that he was seeking to earn the Republican nomination with his message and work ethic."

DeSantis was also in Tennessee in July as the main speaker at the Tennessee Republican Party's annual fundraiser, where he denounced "woke" ideology and promised to reverse what he described as a national "decline."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-285-9480.