Crist Orders State Investigation Into ‘Wafflegate’
Gov. Charlie Crist ordered a state investigation Tuesday into allegations that his administration’s highest-ranking transportation officials deliberately disguised e-mails about the rail bill passed in the recent special session to avoid public records requests.
Crist’s move came in response to a letter from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate to replace him next year, who called for the investigation a day after demanding that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and other DOT leaders resign for violating the state’s Sunshine laws.
“I agree with the letter that was just received from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink,” Crist said in a terse statement. “Accordingly, I have directed Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to conduct an inquiry of the Department of Transportation.”
Miguel is expected to examine why Kopelousos was on the receiving end of E-mails that included such seemingly innocuous terms as “pancakes” and “French toast” in the subject fields but actually carried attachments bearing details of the disputed SunRail commuter rail project.
The controversy is being dubbed “Wafflegate” by groups opposed to the Central Florida rail plan, who have joined Sink in calling for Kopelousos to resign. The DOT chief and her deputies have said the E-mail subjects were not deceptive, but instead an innocent attempt by officials to alert each other to special session issues when they flowed into crowded inboxes.
Sink isn’t convinced.
“Since the Office of the Chief Inspector General is ‘responsible for promoting accountability, integrity and efficiency in the agencies under the jurisdiction of the governor,’…I’m calling upon you to initiate an investigation by your chief inspector general into the conduct of all DOT employees who engaged in this activity,” Sink wrote to Crist.
“If anyone deliberately attempted to subvert the state sunshine requirements, they should be held accountable,” she continued. “An independent investigation by your inspector general looking into DOT’s activity is the best way to ensure this accountability.”
A senator widely credited with derailing previous versions of the train bill hailed Crist’s decision, saying the breakfast E-mails were symptomatic of deeper transparency problems at the DOT.
“Gov. Crist’s call for an investigation of the Florida Department of Transportation’s secret negotiations with CSX Railroad is most welcome,” Sen. Paula Dockery said in a statement provided to the News Service of Florida by her ffice. “For three years, the agency has been stonewalling citizens trying to examine this back-room deal.”
Dockery, R-Lakeland, repeated her earlier call for Crist to veto the rail legislation he vocally supported, though he has already announced plans to sign the bill Wednesday in at least Tampa and Orlando.
“Given the secretive code words used to hide its communications, the agency has violated the public trust,” Dockery said. “Until the investigation is completed, I would encourage the governor to delay signing – or better yet, veto – the legislation we’ve now learned was authored by CSX.”
Although the coded DOT E-mails were internal, Dockery has repeatedly called the rail package a “sweetheart deal” for the freight rail company, which is in line to share existing railroad tracks in the Orlando area for the SunRail commuter train scheduled to be built in 2012.
Another staunch critic of both the rail bill and the E-mails, the newly formed Florida Tea Party, called for Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs to launch a separate investigation in the matter. In a letter to Meggs dated Dec. 14, Tea Party chairman Fred O’Neal called the E-mails “arrogant abuse of public power” that warranted a grand jury investigation.
"I would ask that you review this situation and consider empanelling a grand jury to investigate possible criminal activity in this situation or, at the least, the possibility of drafting a presentment that would serve as a guide for future activities of public officials with regard to their responsibilities under Florida’s Public Records law,” he wrote.
“As I am sure you would agree, the people have no rights if no one is willing to defend those rights,” he continued. “Therefore, if Article I, Section 24 of our State’s Constitution is to mean anything, public officials, like yourself, need to defend the rights granted thereunder."
However, Meggs told the News Service of Florida Tuesday that he has not yet seen O'Neal's letter and was not sure if the allegations merited calling a grand jury in a tight budget year.
“With all the wonderful funding we’re getting from the Legislature, we’re really kind of strapped,” Meggs said. “I’d have to access it and see if we might be able to handle it or if we would need to have someone else do it.”
Another group that was opposed to the rail deal, Ax the Tax, agreed Meggs should launch a grand jury investigation and echoed Dockery in applauding Crist’s naming Miguel to investigate the matter. But Ax the Tax Chairman Doug Guetzloe said Miguel’s investigation would “too little, too late” to fix the rail bill’s transparency problems.
“FDOT intentionally mislead and concealed these vital emails until after the session by bureaucratic slight of hand,” Guetzloe said in a statement. “A full forensic investigation of the contents of all emails should be conducted and released to the public prior to the signing of this legislation,"