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 of his official state account. The emails the public read online were from a different account used almost exclusively by conservative supporters.
On Monday, after the Herald/Times 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 e-mail accounts. It also announced that it would phase out RLS@eog.myflorida.com, which Scott solely used to respond to email. That email address — which was not on any 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 — called "Project Sunburst"— included glowing praise for Scott and his policies, while those appearing on his official state account have been kept out of database.
Under 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."
That was not clear to many who have used and tracked the Sunburst system for the last three months.
"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 good governance organization, 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 returned 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, Arizona, 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 to see. But an anti-purge email sent the same day by Yvonne Christison to Scott's official account was not 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, Wisconsin. "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."
Christison's email, obtained by the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau through a public records request, was one of several anti-Scott messages that did not show up on the Sunburst system.
In fact, virtually all of the more than 500 voter purge-related emails in the Sunburst system indicate support for Scott's efforts. (A recent Herald/Times poll found that 54 percent of Floridians support the voter purge, but there is opposition from more than a third of likely voters.)
The use of unpublished email accounts may have come into play in recent coverage of Carroll. The lieutenant governor drew international media attention earlier this month after a former aide accused her of engaging in a "sexual escapade" with a female staffer in her office.
As the media attention intensified, several newspapers reported that emails in the Sunburst system indicated overwhelming support for Carroll.
"All of the emails to Carroll so far have been supportive, with some also taking aim at Carletha Cole — the former employee who accused the lieutenant governor," the News Service of Florida reported. The article was published in several media outlets across the state.
Even after Carroll responded to the allegations with what some have interpreted as homophobic remarks, only positive messages came into Sunburst.
On other online channels — Face book and Twitter, for example —there has been abundant criticism of Carroll's alleged scandal, and her statement to a TV reporter that "usually black women that look like me don't engage in relationships like that." Carroll has since apologized publicly for making the remark.
A Herald/Times July 17 public records request for a full list of emails sent to Carroll's email account about the case is pending.
On Carroll's Face book page, dozens of people have written messages, blasting the lieutenant governor's statement.
"You should be ashamed of your 'Black women who look like me' comment," wrote Jean Freed. "You should apologize to the Black lesbian community and to the lesbian community at large."
That was one of the milder messages posted on Carroll's Face book page, which presents a stark contrast to the exclusively positive messages displayed on Carroll's account in Sunburst.
"Let me just say that I am shocked and appalled at the vicious lies leveled at you," wrote Lee Nelson to Carroll's Sunburst account. "I support you 100%, and look forward to you running for Governor."
Read more here:
See the press conference announcing Project Sunburst here:
Note: The governor's press office went to great lengths to show that Project Sunburst was "above and beyond" what the law requires and that Scott is one of the most transparent govenors in the history of Florida.
We've posted the office's lengthy statement, in its entirety, below:
The Sunburst email transparency system is the first of its kind in Florida state government. Like all new technology, improvements will be made to the system as it continues to evolve. All emails sent to and received by the Governor are considered public records and have always been available under Florida's Sunshine Law. The Sunburst system provides an additional level of transparency above and beyond what the law requires. Many citizens email private information to the Governor's Office that could inadvertently be made public under the Sunburst system. 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. The initial launch of the Sunburst system only included 11 email accounts so that technical issues could be resolved before more email addresses are added. Effective this week, emails sent or received using the official website contact form will also be added to the Sunburst system. However, in a continuing effort to protect citizen privacy, any protected, private information will not be published.
On a more technical note, the official website contact form has been merged with the Governor's state email account so that emails sent via the web form now drop directly into the Governor's official state account at email@example.com. The old firstname.lastname@example.org address has been discontinued by merging it with the official account (autoforwarded) so that no matter which address is used, either will be published to the Sunburst system on a regular basis.
Executive Office of the Governor