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State launches investigation, assesses $800,000 in damages against SunPass contractor

After months of inaction, Florida Department of Transportation officials announced today that they are assessing nearly $800,000 in damages against the SunPass contractor responsible for the state's tolling chaos.

At Gov. Rick Scott's direction, the department also has requested an investigation by the Office of the Chief Inspector General into the contractor, Conduent State and Local Solutions.

Last month, the state suspended payments on its $343 million contract with Conduent to update the tolling system, which is now in its third month of dysfunction. The original contract included a clause that if Conduent didn't provide the system within the timeline that was agreed upon, then the state had the right to collect "liquidated damages" from the company — in the form of $5,000 for each calendar day past the deadline that the system wasn't ready.

Conduent's original deadline to update Florida's tolling system was August 2017. Based on a review of documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, Maryland-based Conduent could be on the hook to pay the state at least $1.7 million if FDOT held it accountable to the original deadline.

But in a letter sent to Conduent on Tuesday, Floyd Holland, director of toll systems for FDOT, demanded $780,000 in damages, tying it to a November 2017 contract amendment that set up a schedule for Conduent to pay for missed deadlines.

This is the first time the state has asked for the money.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Troubled SunPass vendor could have to pay 1.7 million but Florida isn't asking for it

The total backlog of SunPass toll transactions, which reached at least 170 million, have now been processed. An FDOT press release blamed the backlog on "Conduent's failure to properly transition customers to the new SunPass Centralized Customer Service System (CCSS)," which is technology that the state's contract with Conduent was designed to install.

"We must have answers as to how this happened so we can make sure our customers never experience this again," FDOT secretary Mike Dew said in a release. "The Department will hold Conduent fully accountable for its failures in implementing the CCSS through assessment of liquidated damages. Failure by any vendor is completely unacceptable and Conduent is no exception. We look forward to the information gained through the Chief Inspector General's investigation and will continue to closely monitor all of Conduent's activity to ensure Floridians are receiving the excellent service and support they deserve."

Florida Democrats, including Scott's Senate campaign opponent

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, have appealed to Scott in recent weeks to hold Conduent and the FDOT accountable with repeated calls for an investigation.

Scott said at a recent press conference that SunPass customers who have experienced overdraft expenses due to Conduent's failure to process the charges in real time will be reimbursed. FDOT officials said they will announce the process to file a claim for reimbursement later this week.

About time Rick Scott owned up to the failed SunPass ridiculousness. #FailedLeadership

FDOT is still working through a backlog of unprocessed toll-by-plate charges. Late fees and penalties will continue to be waived for both SunPass and toll-by-plate users, but drivers are still expected to pay tolls.

Officials have said that SunPass users should see charges being posted to their account accurately and in real time and that any questions or concerns can be directed to SunPass customer service representatives. But drivers are saying otherwise.

Robin Law of Riverview tries to avoid toll traffic on her way to work in Tampa during the week. But she said she's still been charged $25 every two days recently, with more than $200 in less than a month.

She tried taking her SunPass account off of auto-pay, but it didn't work. So she tried to disconnect her bank account from SunPass, but that didn't work, either. Then she tried to cancel her SunPass account altogether and buy a new transponder to start fresh — to no avail.

Last week, she called the customer service hotline, but it was a 75-minute wait to speak to a representative. She emailed them, without a response. Then she filed a complaint with the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority. Radio silence.

"You can't do anything," Law said. "The state needs to insist that they stop and refund all tolls until they can get it right and prove to the state that they can."

She said she's lucky because she's able to afford the overdraft charges, at least for now. But she's concerned about other Florida drivers who live paycheck to paycheck."

"If that company has been having issues in other states or other municipalities, then somebody in the state should have been watchdogging them," she said. "They should've never signed a contract with (Conduent)."

Other SunPass users across Florida took to social media to express similar frustration.

I am being charged for 95express toll-by-plate when I have a registered hybrid with visible sticker in toll photo. I was told be one staff member to remove my license plate from account. Not good folks

Yeah and you guys are charging me every two days. It's seriously affecting my bank account. These tolls should have been voided as it was the fault of the vendor. I have no idea when charges will come out or how to budget for it.

@SunPass_FDOT should FIRE @Conduent, suspend tolls, hire a reputable FL based data services team & send @Conduent the bill for lost revenue.

I feel the same as everyone else, these charges are hurting people that live paycheck to paycheck. And they is no way of checking if these double charging or not. #ClassActionLawSuit

In early July, one SunPass customer in Orlando started a petition: "Don't Charge SunPass Users When Your System Is Down." As of today, more than 11,800 people agree with him, based on the growing number of signatures.

Florida's SunPass electronic tolling system has been in disarray since the system went down for updates in early June. Conduent has a track record of mishandling customer service while updating tolling systems in at least seven other states. And when FDOT chose Conduent in 2015, officials knew about the company's reputation.

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

Contact Hannah Denham at hdenham@tampabay.com. Follow @hannah_denham1.

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