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Florida transportation secretary cleared in 'pancakes' e-mail investigation

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos was cleared Friday of allegations that she skirted state public records laws in a series of unusual e-mail exchanges with a co-worker.

A 24-page report by Gov. Charlie Crist's chief inspector general said Kopelousos and a top aide were not using "code words" when they sent e-mails with subjects such as "pancakes" and "French toast."

The report also said an employee's error caused a delay in sending a state senator 8,000 e-mails in response to a public records request.

"Our agency strongly believes in serving Floridians and making sure we're open and transparent," Kopelousos said Friday afternoon. "I'm just glad to see that the independent IG investigation did confirm that."

The e-mails were sent in a flurry of activity before lawmakers approved passenger rail legislation in a December special session.

Sen. Paula Dockery, a fervent critic of the CSX liability deal, was seeking to spike the bill for a third straight year. She sent a records request to Kopelousos for all e-mails between her and two aides concerning CSX, rail or liability.

According to the report, Assistant Secretary Kevin Thibault sent Kopelousos an e-mail titled "pancakes" so that she could quickly find the e-mail on her BlackBerry while she was traveling. Subsequent "pancake" and "French toast" e-mails were part of a running gag, the officials said.

"Surprise!" Dockery said sarcastically Friday of the inspector general's report. "I wouldn't have expected a different outcome. If it was a running gag, then I guess the joke's on the taxpayers."

Dockery, R-Lakeland, made her first request for the e-mails just before Thanksgiving. On Dec. 3, the day the special session officially started, the department returned 121 e-mails. The next day, Dockery complained, noting that messages she had sent to Kopelousos had not shown up in the results.

According to the inspector general's report, a department employee had mistakenly entered the search terms in the "to/from" field instead of the "content" field in the e-mail search program. The employee, according to testimony, was devastated.

Only after Dockery complained did the department realize the error. Officials immediately began working on the 8,205 e-mails that turned up under the correct search, the report said.

Kopelousos said that, in response to the incident, her agency has added more safeguards to a records request "before it leaves the 'IT shop.' "

"No evidence was found to suggest that any department official intentionally withheld documents in violation of the law," the report reads. "To the contrary, evidence shows that unintentional, human error occurred during the initial public records request."

Dockery received the full stack of e-mails Dec. 9, the day after the bill was approved.

"This investigation was kind of a coverup," said Dockery, who is running for governor. "It was never something I was waiting for the results of."

Many of the details in the report were already known. But the report does say that the saga known as "Wafflegate" in Tallahassee political circles — though waffles are never mentioned in the e-mails — might have had a different name.

Thibault told investigators that instead of "pancake," "he considered putting 'Red Sox' because he is a fan."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida transportation secretary cleared in 'pancakes' e-mail investigation 02/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 10:50pm]
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