January 23, 2010

DOT calls Atrak threat a bargaining ploy

Top state Department of Transportation officials are calling Amtrak's threat to end rail service in the SunRail corridor a bluff. And legislative leaders question the federally-subsided corporation's motives. It's setting up a high speed game of chicken that threatens to derail one of Gov. Charlie Crist's top priorities. Read more here.

January 22, 2010

Amtrak is ending agreement with state after CSX deal

UPDATED 3:50 p.m. An Amtrak spokeswoman is providing a clearer picture of what the letter below could mean. If the state doesn't strike a deal with Amtrak, it's possible Amtrak would discontinue service on theDeLand to Poinciana track -- the portion the state intends to purchase from CSX . (No changes in service are expected in the next 30 days, however.) As for federal funds for rail, this deal would not impact how the money is disbursed, despite implications in the Amtrak letter. The bottom line: It's just another glitch in the plagued Sun Rail deal.

UPDATED 12:45 p.m.: A letter sent Thursday to DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos puts Florida on notice that Amtrak is terminating the 2008 memorandum of understanding with the state. Without the agreement, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman writes that Florida possibly couldn't tap federal commuter rail money.

The problem is the liability clauses in the Sun Rail deal approved by the Legislature in the December special session and later signed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Amtrak raised these issues in a Nov. 30 letter to Kopelousos that went unheeded.

The termination would occur in 30 days if the state can't scurry to cut a deal with Amtrak, which is asking lawmakers to put in legislation an "enforceable, no-fault, indemnity agreement" similar to the one the state made with CSX.

The DOT's agreement with Amtrak on liability issues "preclude FDOT from assuming the indemnity obligations for which CSX is responsible," the letter states.

It's unclear whether this is just a bureaucratic mess or a roadblock that could interrupt commuter traffic in Florida.

Continue reading "Amtrak is ending agreement with state after CSX deal" »

December 17, 2009

Padrón, lawmakers, Times/Herald listed as newsmakers of 2009

Some of you might have already seen Florida Trend's feature in its January edition called "Florida Newsmakers of 2009." But if you haven't, here are some highlights:

Eduardo Padrón was named Floridian of the Year for his work as Miami Dade College president to re-shape the way the country views community colleges.

In government, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, is highlighted for his role in passing SB 360, the growth management bill.

Also from the halls of government, the magazine puts a spotlight on the passenger rail bill and its chief opponent, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

A third government article, you ask? Why there's Ray Sansom, the former House Speaker indicted for his role in steering $35 million in taxpayer funding to Northwest Florida State College.

Florida Power and Light gets a nod for its work on solar plants.

Another honor for the star University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

The magazine (a sister publication of the St. Petersburg Times) was also gracious enough to write a few words about the scribes at the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau.

December 16, 2009

Inside FDOT's breakfast 'scandal!' Secret codes revealed!

So here's the content and attachments of the breakfast gate emails. The level of conspiracy and wicked government skullduggery and abuse of public records laws is shocking! (look herehere, here and here for more background). Beware, these attachments contain highly classified info.

From: Thibault, Kevin
Sent: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 10:11 AM
To: Kopelousos, Stephanie
Subject: Pancakes

As requested.

Download Providing a Dedicated Funding Source


Continue reading "Inside FDOT's breakfast 'scandal!' Secret codes revealed!" »

FDOT breakfast egg on Alex Sink's face

In her zeal to score political points over breakfast-gate, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's governor's campaign sent out a screed lambasting the Gov. Charlie Crist's administration for a Sunshine Law violation because DOT officials used words like "French toast" and "pancakes" in the subject header of emails dealing with the SunRail legislation.

"It's not cute, nor clever. It is outrageous," Sink's email states in bold type, referring to the use of breakfast terms. "That's why I called on Governor Charlie Crist to investigate this violation of Florida's 'Sunshine Law' and hold every government official involved in this scheme accountable."

Huh. So in one day Sink has morphed from calling for an investigation into being judge and jury by determining the law way broken.

To borrow a breakfast analogy, Sink is going to have a lot of egg on her face if she can't back up the allegation of illegality.

Campaign spokesman Paul Dunn says he's looking into it.

Sink spokesman Kyra Jennings was more forthright: "It's possible that the campaign may have just made an unintentional misstatement on their email."

Jennings followed up with an email noting that she had no authority to speak on behalf of the campaign.

UPDATE: Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, issued a statement through his campaign: "CFO Sink's rush to judgment in this serious issue for the apparent goal of political expediency is disturbing." (McCollum has repeatedly criticized Sink for not speaking out  forcefully on a range of issues, such as a public option element of a national health care bill).

Even Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland and a governor's candidate as well, among the harshest critics of the rail legislation, has not ever accused the state of violating the Sunshine Law in this instance. And it was her office that obtained the emails in which the breakfast foods were used and it was Dockery's office that first noted the suspicious nature of the emails.

Crist signs rail bill; FDOT head absent

With the state's chief transportation official conspicuously not in attendance, Gov. Charlie Crist signed the rail bill (HB 1B) into law at a ceremony in the Capitol Wednesday morning.

"Today we celebrate because Florida's transportation future moves into the 21st century," Crist said. The legislation, he added, "solidifies our state's commitment to expanding passenger rail transportation," a development he said he hoped U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will take into account as the Obama administration dispenses billions in rail stimulus money.

The legislation creates the SunRail commuter line on CSX tracks in central Florida, provides more money for South Florida's ailing TriRail system and provides money for the first leg of a high speed rail system linking Tampa and Orlando.

Florida's transportation secretary, Stephanie Kopelousos, was not in attendance and could not be asked questions about an e-mail controversy (although two other agency heads were). Crist ordered his inspector general to investigate why some DOT emails sent to Kopelousos by a top aide used breakfast words like "French toast" and "pancakes" to get her attention. Crist called that "odd" and unnecessary, but he still went ahead with an elaborate bill signing trip with stops in Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

Crist: DOT's use of breakfast-named emails 'odd'

Gov. Charlie Crist -- not known as a regular user of e-mail -- says he found it "odd" that the Department of Transportation would use breakfast words like "pancakes" and "French toast" in official communications dealing with the recent commuter rail legislation. DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos' No. 2, Kevin Thibault, said he used those words in email subject lines to get the attention of Kopelousos, who is inundated with hundreds of messages daily.   

"I don't think it's necessary," Crist said. "I don't think it's problematic, but I think it's odd. If you're going to use email, just say what you want to say." He ordered Inspector General, Melinda Miguel to review those three emails Tuesday, as requested by CFO Alex Sink. "In an abundance of caution, I think it's prudent to go ahead and have the IG look at it," Crist said. "I got a letter from the CFO. I agree with her request."

No, Crist said, the e-mail controversy would not delay his signing of the rail bill Wednesday in a high-profile, four-city/media market swing. "I don't think it has anything to do with the substance of the bill," Crist said, calling the rail legislation "one of the crown jewels of the year. Candidly, I do. I know it is."

-- Steve Bousquet

December 15, 2009

Breakfast gate now officially bizarro

Breakfast is served.

Sen. Paula Dockery now wants Gov. Charlie Crist to delay the Wednesday signing of the rail bill she opposed now that Crist asked the state's inspector general to conduct an inquiry into Florida Department of Transportation emails that bore the headlines "pancake," "Pancakes" and "French Toast."

To Dockery, R-Lakeland, the breakast-food words are an example of "code words" that FDOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and her chief, Kevin Thibault, used to potentially skirt a public-records request for agency correspondence concerning rail issues for the just-ended special lawmaking session.

Kopelousos said the email titles were sent in a moment of inspiration by Thibault who needed an "eye-catching" way to get her attention about a hum-drum rail issue. The breakfast food names stood out and, she said, enabled her to quickly distinguish the email from all others.

Dockery, a Republican governor's candidate, has promised to "clean house" at FDOT. State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic governor's candidate, said Kopelousos should leave if it can be demonstrated that she attempted to break the law.

Said Dockery: "Governor Crist’s call for an investigation of the Florida Department of Transportation’s secret negotiations with CSX Railroad is most welcome. For three years, the agency has been stonewalling citizens trying to examine this back-room deal. Given the secretive code words used to hide its communications, the agency has violated the public trust. 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.”


Crist orders IG to look into Breakfast-gate

Looks like the madness over the pancake and French toast e-mails will continue on for a little while longer. Gov. Charlie Crist just asked his Inspector General to look into the matter.

"I agree with the letter that was just received from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink," he said in a statement. "Accordingly, I have directed Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to conduct an inquiry of the Department of Transportation.”

Here's Sink's letter asking Crist to order the inquiry:

Continue reading "Crist orders IG to look into Breakfast-gate" »

December 14, 2009

FDOT: Sometimes a pancake's just a pancake

So Florida Department of Transportation secretary Stephanie Kopelousos's attention is tough to get. Asst. Secretary for Engineering and Operations Kevin Thibault said had a solution: Write a weird headline that she can easily see and search for on her BlackBerry. 

The headline: Pancake.

Thus begins the mystery of the breakfast food emails, rail, and FDOT. 

The emails stood out because, initially, they weren't released in a records request Sen. Paula Dockery had sent the agency. (More here) So apparent code words could look like an effort to circumvent the public records law. Or it could be the case of the head of an agency under the gun who, besieged by emails, needed to read something quickly.

"It was something eye-catching," Kopelousos said. "We aren't trying to circumvent anything."

Continue reading "FDOT: Sometimes a pancake's just a pancake" »