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Week in Review: All About The Breakfast Club

There were fewer fireworks than expected in passing the sweeping special session rail package, but the honeymoon for supporters was scrambled a bit this week by allegations that high-ranking state transportation officials used a breakfast-theme code for E-mails about the bill.

Responding to newspaper reports that Department of Transportation officials titled E-mails about the legislation that lawmakers approved during the special session with words like “pancake” and “French toast,” Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and her deputies should be the ones pancaked for violating the spirit of the state's Sunshine laws.

The E-mail breakfast club, a story rail opponents quickly christened “WaffleGate,” can be traced back prior to the start of the special session when Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, filed a public records request for E-mails about the rail bill. Asking for messages sent between March and mid-November, she 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 seemed to reveal a coding system that had opponents not liking their green eggs and ham.

Chief among the critics whose anger boiled over this week was Dockery, who said Gov. Charlie Crist should delay signing the rail bill or veto it altogether. But the governor, who vocally supported the rail plan, didn’t waffle.

Instead, he signed the bill in Tallahassee - and signed it again in Tampa, Orlando and a final time in Fort Lauderdale, making more stops on his tour than will be made by the trains the plan will allow.

Crist said he was signing the rail bill quickly because he did not think the breakfast E-mail controversy had much sizzle – at least not enough to fry the bill. But he did respond quickly to Sink’s request for an investigation, ordering a probe by Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel.

Absent from Crist’s bill signing ceremony was Kopelousos, who had been a staple when the governor earlier had talked about the sunny upside of investing in trains in Florida.

He was asked if Kopelousos missed the early morning Tallahassee signing ceremony because she had a late breakfast, but the governor wasn’t laughing, pivoting instead to what he says will be a positive economic impact from the rail bill and the possibility of drawing down federal money for high speed rail as a result of signing it.

For her part, Kopelousos said that the WaffleGaters hadn’t fully cracked the story: the E-mails were not attempts to get around state Sunshine laws, she said. They were simply an effort to get her attention when she skimmed her crowded inbox.

Kopelousos said the attachments were all appropriately labeled, which she said allowed for full-compliance with state open records laws. She also said the discrepancy between the small response to Dockery's initial public records request, which fueled the allegations of a cover-up, was an "honest mistake."

Government watchdogs did not appear to be buying the syrup Kopelousos was selling, however. One, First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen, said Kopelousos' explanation "doesn't pass the sniff test."

"The fact is that she is the secretary of a very important state agency," Petersen told the News Service. "It shouldn't be that hard for her assistant secretary or general counsel to get her attention, to the point of using nonsensical subjects.”

LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR

When official Tallahassee wasn’t talking waffles this week, it was talking about State Farm Florida Insurance Co.
announcing it will remain in the Florida market. Almost a year after the company, the state's largest private property insurer, announced plans to drop its nearly 1 million policies and exit the state, the company reached an agreement this week with state regulators to drop 125,000 policies and hike rates 14.8 percent, but stay in the state.

Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty announced the agreement, which ends legal proceedings that began after Florida insurance officials in January denied the company's 47 percent rate hike request. It ensures the company will remain a player in the state for at least another year.
State Farm officials said the deal will allow them to continue offering policies in the Florida market by recognizing the company's need to drop riskier policies and raise rates to more adequately offset non-hurricane losses. The agreement will allow State Farm to begin non-renewing policies beginning in August 2010.

Under terms of the agreement, the company will immediately be allowed to raise its premiums by 14.8 percent when policies are renewed. State Farm will also begin to allow its Florida agents to sell policies with other companies, releasing them from exclusive contracts that had been a troublesome requirement for state officials.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are now angry that the approved rate increase by Citizens Property Insurance was far below the upper limit of 10 percent, which they had decided earlier this year was how far rates for coverage needed to go up to make sure the company had enough to pay claims.

Regulators later approved a rate increase of about 5.2 percent for homeowners in the state-backed company's high risk areas, causing lawmakers to say they'll likely push harder in the coming year to get the insurer's rates higher to avoid it being unable to pay claims in the event in the big storm. Several House members believed the 10 percent cap on rate increases was simply an assurance that they wouldn't go higher than that, not a license for the Office of Insurance Regulation to approve a smaller increase.

READY, SET, STOP?

The state is racing toward a January deadline to apply for a chunk of federal grant money, but the state's teachers union said this week that the proposal is not on its mark, which could ultimately jeopardize the department's chance to win up to $700 million from the Obama administration.

The Florida Education Association said that a memorandum that union presidents are asked to sign supporting the state's application is "fatally flawed" and have asked individual school district unions not to support it. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program is meant to improve teacher quality and help struggling schools throughout the country. But many school districts are not racing to sign it, fearing potential problems.

FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said no union will sign the document because it will cede too much power from the local school districts to the state. And, he said, it will create a lot of expensive changes at individual schools that won't necessarily be backed up by state dollars when the federal pot runs dry.

THE COURT HAS ITS SAY

The Florida Supreme Court weighed in on a pair of cases this week, ruling that simply running away from police in a high crime area is enough to land you in jail in an opinion that even members of the majority found troubling and potentially discriminatory. The court also banned the indiscriminate use of shackling of child offenders during court appearances.

In the former, when the Court had been asked to resolve a discrepancy between two appellate opinions, the state's highest court, by a 5-1 vote, ruled that it was bound by state law and a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court precedent, even if adhering to both could result in the arrest of a person who had done nothing wrong.

In the latter, the Florida Bar recommended that the high court change the laws regarding juvenile courtroom appearances after reviewing various circuit court practices because the procedures regarding shackling juvenile offenders vary by judicial circuit.

Finally, continued sluggishness in the building industry pushed Florida's unemployment up to 11.5 percent in November, its highest level since May 1975.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist signed the special session rail package this week, but his victory lap around the state was nearly scattered, smothered and covered by allegations that Department of Transportation officials used breakfast-themed E-mail subjects when discussing the bill to scramble public records requests. Also, state insurance officials bet the farm that allowing State Farm Insurance Co. to raise rates and drop some consumers would be enough to keep them in Florida, and won.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If a citizen was writing to the secretary and put pancakes in the subject and she didn't know who it was, she wouldn't open it," First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen explaining why she thought Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos’ “WaffleGate” explanation was a little light and fluffy.

13 Responses »

  1. Who cares about the Subject lines of a few immaterial emails? This is much ado about nothing; a gambit to "launch" Paula Dockery's deluded bid for Governor.

    Dockery is a pro-choice, free spending liberal who stands with trial lawyers instead of citizens and doctors and business owners. She is completely out of touch with Republican Primary voters in the state of Florida.

    The question is, who are Dockery’s supporters, who, exactly are her people? No one, other than a few fringe activists like laughable Doug Guetzloe. Yikes!

  2. Doug Goetzloe? isn't he involved with the Tea Party of Florida Party? When I challenged Nick Egoroff about assimilating the good will of the tea Party movement he replied: "For crying out loud, who in the world gave you or anyone else the rights to the Tea Party name? Did you get ‘permission’ to use the name? From who? When? You talk like this is some kind of high school class election, sheez"

    This causes me to doubt the intentions of said party. If nothing else, it illustrates that sometimes lawyers forget there's a difference between "legal" and "honest".
    My understanding is Goetzloe publically supported Obama and Alan Grayson. If this is true; then appearances dictate a conclusion that the Tea Party party is a liberal attempt to split conservative votes to advantage Democrats: liberal Democrats to be specific.

  3. Goetzloe supports Grayson.

  4. What nonsense!
    Doug Guetzloe is heavily involved with the tea party movement and he strongly supported John McCain individually and on his daily radio show. He has definately NOT endorsed Alan Grayson.
    Guetzloe has done more for the taxpayers of Florida than all the tea party groups put together! Check it out at http://www.AxTheTax.org and see for yourself.
    The Florida Tea Party is a great idea whose time has come.
    Join up and join the revolution - http://www.FloridaTeaParty.US.

    • Nonsense! The Tea Party party is a result of a lawyer being ostrasized from the Republican Party for reasons that violated his oath- his word, if you will.

      The goal is obviously to create conservative losses as a method of retribution. The fact that the term Tea Party illustrates that point.

      More on this issue in the Morning in America blog.

  5. Join the Revolution? Sounds like Ron Paul to me. I thought Ron Paul was a Republican. . .

  6. I find it disengenuous that a registered party would encourage people to join their party and remain registered in another party. Twice, the Tea Party party founder invited me to join theim and remain registered as a Republican. Very dishonest in my opinion.

  7. Something tells me OTOWN is going to be one of those "hit and run" posters. No dialog, no substance- just throw out some diatribe and "keep on going".

  8. I've learned that the founder of the Tea Party is involved with the Paula Dockery campaign. I wrote the following e-mail:

    Senator Dockery,
    I'm a District Chairman, and Precinct Captain for Duval REC. I'm also a high=profile member of a 1000+ weekly attendees
    church, and Director of a 80-120 member Sunday School class for 35-50 year old members. I say this to helpyou understand that I understand people and how the average Republican thinks.

    My questions are simple:
    1.How can you run as a Republican for Governor while one of your campaign representatives states that he's started a new political party to compete with the Republican Party. So I can answer my District constituents, and my friends from church:

    2. Are you a Republican, or someone who used to be a Republican and you've just not gotten around to telling the voters yet?

    Her answer should be interesting, if I get an answer. I'll let you know. . .

  9. Update: I got a return e-mail from someone named Travis Horm, he gas an e-mail address including ""@people forpaula.com". He wanted me to Meet with Ms. Dockery at the REC meeting in Orlando. I explained I have a previous engagment (dad and I are doing some fishing) and the Senator can answer my simple questions via e-mail. No reply so far.

    I've learned that people in politics like to meet in person because they can use nuance and inflection to "shade" their verbiage. Also, if the conversation creats controversy, they can deny the verbiage: or the inflection.

    These questions are valid questions, and were delivered with respect for her office. The Senator should answer those questions without nuance, obfuscation, or reticence.

    Still waiting for an answer. . .

  10. OK, I finally recieveed an answer from Travis Horn who represents an organization with an IPO address of "@peopleforpaula.com". Instead of answering my questions we writes:
    "Sir,

    I've been very, very patient in trying to figure out exactly what it is you are asking. I'm beginning to think you don't want a straight answer, because you clearly did not ask a straight answer. I've given you our phone numbers too, but you do not wish to speak to anyone in person. My intuition tells me Sir, after many, many years spent in politics, that nothing will satisfy you Mr. Davis."
    WHich I found to be very odd since the only answer I got was "come to Orlando and meet Ms. Dockery." He further replies: "No further reply to your emails is forthcoming, unless you can formulate a complete thought. Good night, and good luck with that.

    Very Sincerely,
    T. Horn."
    This intimates that Mr. Horn acually DOES understand the seicnt questions and would rather side-step them now that he realizes he can't "smooth over" the inquisitor. I've offered him one more opportunity to answer these questions before I publish the dialog for the public to draww it's own conclusions.

    We'll see.

  11. Finally got an answer from the Dockery campaign. They assured me that Ergoroff has no official role in the election bid for Governor. At this point, I'll accept that answer at face value.

  12. On going requests for Senator Dockery, the Tea Party party, and the e-mails that predicated the article all available on Morning in America blog.

    Clarification, please. . .