THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Kopelousos: ‘Wafflegate’ e-mails ‘honest mistake’

Dec 15, 2009

THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA published this article on December 14, 2009.

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 14, 2009……….Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos said late Monday that internal E-mails about the recently approved rail legislation that appeared to be coded to avoid public records requests were simply an effort to get her attention when she skimmed her crowded inbox, not attempts to get around state Sunshine laws.

The reality of it is I get hundreds of E-mails in a day, Kopelousos said in a telephone interview after the News Service of Florida published a story on the matter. Staff was trying to find an easy way that I would be able to search without getting back hundreds of responses.

So, her staff chose certain weird words, which allowed me to search so that hundreds of E-mails didn?t come up.

The matter came to light when 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 more than 8,000 E-mails, after originally being told only a few E-mails had been found. Some of the E-mails contained just attachments and had subjects such as “pancakes” and “French toast,” which critics said appeared to be a coding system.

But Kopelousos said that the attachments were all appropriately labeled, which she said allowed for full-compliance with state open records laws.

Kopelousos said the discrepancy between the small response to Dockery?s initial public records request, which fueled the allegations of a cover-up that rail opponents dubbed WaffleGate, was an honest mistake.

She added that the transportation department prided itself on its accessibility to residents, pointing to local hearings held for road projects, and said that she was concerned about giving the appearance that public records laws were being skirted.

This agency does so much with the public, Kopelousos said. ?Hearings and feedback are a part of our process. That?s not the way we operate.?

However, 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 in a telephone interview. It shouldn?t be that hard for her assistant secretary or general counsel to get her attention, to the point of using nonsensical subjects. 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.

Petersen said Kopelousos’ rationale for the breakfast E-mails would be more plausible if the initial public records request had turned them up.

When you put that together with the fact that search for the initial public records request turned up nothing and there were 8,000 E-mails, that?s bothersome, she said.

Petersen said that intentionally violating the public records law is a misdemeanor offense, but that unless a citizen filed a complaint with the state?s attorney or the transportation department?s inspector general, it would be hard to prove that intention.

Meanwhile, Dockery, who has long had a hostile relationship with the DOT, called on Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the rail bill she had successful twice killed before last week?s special session.

Gov. Crist should veto the rail legislation, which was struck under the cloak of darkness in a smoke-filled room, Dockery wrote Monday afternoon on her Twitter page.