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SunPass mess not an issue for Republican governor candidates. Why not?

Ron DeSantis has received $35,000 from the family behind the SunPass contractor. Adam Putnam rarely criticizes Rick Scott.
Cars pass through the Sun Pass toll lanes at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge toll booth plaza in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Aug. 6, 2018
Updated Aug. 6, 2018

For two months, Floridians have dealt with a broken electronic toll system that is unlikely to be fixed any time soon.

Yet, the two leading Republican candidates for governor have been mum on the ongoing debacle.

The Tampa Bay Times couldn't find any recent interviews, press releases or campaign speeches in which either U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam publicly addressed the problems facing SunPass and the Florida Department of Transportation, an agency they would oversee if elected the state's next executive.

Neither campaign responded to questions from the Tampa Bay Times last week about what they would do to address the problem.

Meanwhile, for weeks, frustrated drivers were charged unwarranted overdraft fees and were unable to access their SunPass accounts online. As of Friday afternoon, the backlog of unprocessed toll transactions was still at 133 million, according to the FDOT, down from more than 187 million.

The problems stem from a system upgrade that was supposed to make the online billing system inaccessible for one week, June 5-11. But the system remained down for much longer.

Six months before the outage, a major shareholder in the contractor behind the SunPass problems, Conduent, Inc., donated considerably to DeSantis' campaign.

Dallas billionaire Darwin Deason cut DeSantis a check for $25,000 on Dec. 29, 2017. His son, Doug Deason donated $10,000 on the same day, according to state campaign finance records.

Darwin Deason has more than 12 million shares in Conduent Inc., the contractor that operates SunPass, and holds the sole voting power according to company filings signed in February 2018. Doug Deason manages the family's assets.

DeSantis' campaign did not respond to a question about the campaign contributions.

MORE: Florida is still paying SunPass contractor, even after officials said they would stop

In the weeks before the system went down, Darwin Deason, his wife Katerina and Doug Deason each donated $5,400 to Gov. Rick Scott, now running for U.S. Senate.

Scott has taken political heat for those donations. Democrats have questioned whether they have affected how the Republican governor has responded to the crisis.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Scott's Democratic opponent, has called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and state Democrats have demanded an independent audit.

RELATED: Democrats want Florida to suspend all SunPass toll collections until the system is fixed

RELATED: SunPass is a mess. Florida could have seen it coming.

"Anybody that wants to contribute — when they contributed in my governor's race or if they want to contribute in this (U.S. Senate) race — they know exactly what I stand for and what I'm going to do," Scott said on Thursday. "I'm doing everything I can to make sure there's no conflicts."

Putnam has often flaunted his deep knowledge of Florida issues and willingness to face voters and reporters on nearly every topic.

Yet, asked how he would grade Scott's handling of the SunPass mess, his campaign didn't respond.

It's in line with how Putnam has treated the man he hopes to replace. On the campaign trail, he has rarely spoken ill of Scott — a governor who in many ways neutered Putnam's power as a co-cabinet member.

Indeed, at a May candidate forum, Punam struggled to name a single criticism of the Republican administration.

Instead, Putnam has positioned himself as a continuation of the last eight years in Tallahassee. (Notably, Scott has not endorsed in the race.)

The Democratic candidates for governor have not hesitated to weigh in on the Sun Pass controversy.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said as governor he would conduct a "full review" of all FDOT contracts. Geoff Burgan, spokesman to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said the SunPass problem is "hurting working people."

"Governor Scott has taken his eye off the ball as he's run for Senate," Burgan said.

Winter Park businessman Chris King on Twitter said it was emblematic of Republican efforts to "privatize and contract out essential services to unreliable companies to save a buck."

Said King: "Fix this now."

And here's Gwen Graham:

Times staff writer Hannah Denham contributed to this report.

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