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Sink: DOT Officials Who Coded Rail Emails Should Resign

Amid newspaper reports that high-ranking state transportation officials coded E-mails about the rail bill passed in the recently completed special session, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said Monday they should resign.

Responding to a weekend Palm Beach Post report that Department of Transportation officials titled E-mails about the legislation lawmakers approved during last week’s special session with breakfast-themed code words, Sink, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and her deputies should step down from their posts for violating the spirit of the state’s Sunshine laws.

“We live in the Sunshine State, and this is not the way the people's business should be done,” Sink said in a statement Monday. “Those who acted this way should be held accountable, which is why if anyone at the Department of Transportation was involved in this activity, including Secretary Kopelousos, they should immediately resign."

In addition to helping lawmakers craft the language of the sweeping rail package they approved last week, the DOT negotiated the terms of the deal to buy 61 miles of existing tracks in the Orlando from freight company CSX Corp. for the SunRail commuter system. Prior to the start of the special session, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, filed a public records request for E-mails about the rail bill between March and mid-November and was given 121 responses.

Dockery, herself a Republican gubernatorial candidate, questioned the low number of results, which transportation officials attributed to a data entry error. After the rail bill passed over Dockery’s objection during the special session, her office was given more than 8,000 E-mails, some of which contained just attachments and had subjects such as “pancakes” and “French toast,” which revealed an apparent coding system.

In a statement provided to the News Service of Florida by her Tallahassee office, Dockery castigated the transportation officials for violating the state’s open government laws. Dockery said she had filed a new request for DOT E-mails containing breakfast items as key words in the hopes of gathering the full scope of the department’s negotiations with CSX on the plan she has repeatedly called a sweetheart deal for the company.

“It is evident through the words, actions, and inactions of these state officials that they are actively circumventing transparency laws,” Dockery said. “Using code words in an effort to disguise the true content of an E-mail is a violation of the public trust. A sound statewide rail policy is something that deserved to be openly discussed and debated-not negotiated behind closed doors.”

Dockery added she was able to identify that something might have been amiss with her initial records request because she was trained in public records as a former member of the Governor’s Commission on Open Government.

“Average citizens are denied access to records they have a constitutional right to review each and every day,” she said. “I have experienced firsthand the frustration of attempting to obtain records from entities that are supposed to be conducting government in the sunshine.”

A group that sought alongside Dockery to rally grassroots opposition to the special session rail package, Ax the Tax, dubbed the E-mail breakfast coding “WaffleGate.” The group joined Sink and Dockery in calling for the resignations of offending transportation officials.

“Florida has broad public records laws – so says the statute that give us the right to obtain public documents – not so with the Florida Department of Transportation,” Ax the Tax Chairman Doug Guetzloe said in a statement. “This entire project has been cloaked with secrecy and now we discover, belatedly, that CSX and FDOT were intentionally and deliberately hiding vital information about this boondoggle with code words like waffle, bacon, pancakes, etc.”

“The FDOT hierarchy must resign immediately due to potentially illegal violation of Chapter 119 Public Records laws – so much for Government in the Sunshine,” Guetzloe concluded.

Dockery’s opponent for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination, Attorney General Bill McCollum, did not go as far as Sink. A McCollum spokeswoman said he is that he is a big believer in the state Sunshine laws, but that the most likely response to the E-mail coding issue would come from the man he hopes to replace next – Gov. Charlie Crist.

“Attorney General McCollum is committed to ensuring transparency in government, and all of Florida's public servants should conduct their business in the Sunshine,” McCollum communications director Sandi Copes said in a E-mail to the News Service. “We trust the governor will take the appropriate steps to review the concerns brought before him.”

A spokesman for the governor told the News Service that Crist had not yet looked into the allegations.

The Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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