Department of Transportation: WaffleGate

“If a citizen was writing to Kopelousos and put “pancakes” in the subject and the Transportation Secretary 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.

As a publisher of daily news items, many of which are couched in some sort of government setting, I am particularly sensitive to issues related to freedom of the press. Some people feel that short of good independent sources on the internet, the print media is bought, sold and owned by the families planning to takeover the new world order. To those who feel the print media is complicit, the 4th estate has become a 5th column.

Most people I know firmly believe that politicians and government officials should not control the media. Last week, there was good coverage by The News Service of Florida in an article they published about the use of “breakfast-theme codes” in e-mails by high-ranking state transportation officials concerning the special session rail package that was approved by the state legislature; e-mails that have been alleged to violate Florida’s government in the sunshine laws.

Responding to newspaper reports that Department of Transportation officials titled e-mails about the legislation 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, who is 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.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story