TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott said he was championing transparency in May when he gave the public access to his emails by posting them online for anyone to see.
But what he failed to say at his May 3 news conference launching "Project Sunburst" was that the emails he made public were not the emails in his official state account. The emails the public actually read online were from a different account used almost exclusively by conservative supporters.
On Monday, after the Times/Herald questioned what appeared to be an unrealistically high percentage of favorable emails on the public database, the Scott administration issued a statement acknowledging the two separate email accounts. It also announced that it would phase out RLS@eog.myflorida.com. That email — which was not on the official state website — appears on many tea party websites across the state, under the heading "Governor Rick Scott's email."
"Effective this week, emails sent or received using the official website contact form will also be added to the Sunburst system," said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess, who emphasized that the governor's emails are always available through a public records request.
Scott was not available for comment.
A full list of emails sent to both of Scott's accounts, going back to May 1, will now be uploaded to the system. Scott's official state email account is firstname.lastname@example.org, but this account is only used to receive emails and not correspond with the public.
The vast majority of the emails displayed on the public database included glowing praise for Scott and his policies, while those appearing on his official state account have been kept out of database.
As part of Project Sunburst, the emails of Scott, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and several of their staff members were to be posted on a public website within 24 hours. Scott said it would give the public and the media a more transparent view of Florida's government at work. The Sunburst system was supposed to eventually be rolled out to various state agencies.
Scott called it an "open and transparent window into how state government works" and directed people to the Sunburst site to access "my emails."
"It was always my understanding that all of the governor's email accounts were going to be listed," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "I find it very odd and misleading that we're only getting the (positive) stuff."
Burgess defended Sunburst, calling it the "most transparent public records system in Florida state government" and said that Scott's official state account was not displayed because of concern for the privacy of people who include personal information in their emails to the governor.
"In an effort to protect those citizens, the initial rollout of the Sunburst system did not include emails sent or received using the official website contact form or its associated email address," he said.
Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, a group that formed this year with a mission to expose corruption in government, criticized the failure to put all emails on Project Sunburst.
"Project Sunburst should not be used as a propaganda machine," said Krassner. "When you leave transparency in the hands of officials to pick and choose what they want to share with the public, problems arise."
Reporters — acting at the urging of Scott — have regularly relied on the Sunburst database rather than filing a public records request for official emails. Several reporters have used those emails to gauge public sentiment on a host of issues, and the informal reviews have skewed results in favor of the governor.
Scott's controversial plan to purge suspected non-U.S. citizens from the voting rolls offers a good example of the stark difference between the account displayed on Sunburst and the governor's more widely used email address.
On Sunburst, hundreds of emails indicate broad, unanimous support for Scott's purge plan. The emails show subject lines like "Please stand strong," "We Support you!" and "Don't stop fighting!!! Verified Voter Rolls: Amen!"
"Please make maintaining accurate voter rolls as a major priority," wrote John Tirrell of Tucson, Ariz., on June 5. "Stand up to the corrupt Obama administration and his sycophantic media. Clean up the voter rolls."
Within hours, Tirrell's email was forwarded from Scott's unpublished account to the Sunburst system for members of the media and public to see. But an anti-purge email sent the same day by Yvonne Christison to Scott's official account was never listed on the system.
"I am writing to strongly urge you to stop the ongoing purge of Florida's voter rolls," wrote Christison of Stevens Point, Wis. "The purge is riddled with errors. Based on outdated, inaccurate information, thousands of rightfully registered voters are being kicked off the rolls — including Bill Internicola, a 91-year-old decorated World War II veteran."
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.