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FDOT tries to discredit 10News investigation exposing SunPass data compromise

With Florida's general election 77 days away, FDOT has gone to great lengths to downplay its massive SunPass meltdown.

TAMPA BAY, Fla. - Following a 10Investigates report that customers' personal data was compromised by the SunPass system and the state chose not to make a public announcement, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) sent out a Monday evening press release discrediting the story and claiming 10Investigates didn't give the agency a chance to provide "critical information."

Except it wasn't true.

TIMELINE: How 10Investigates uncovered the SunPass mess

10Investigates has published the email to spokespersons for both FDOT and Gov. Rick Scott, nearly a week prior to the release of Monday's article, alerting them of the imminent story and asking for a response. None of the state officials responded until five days later, after the report appeared on WTSP.com.

The episode was the latest in the agency's 82-day effort to downplay the disaster, which has left customers with inexplicable toll charges, accounts overdrawn, and frustratingly-long wait times to get problems fixed on the phone.

Floridians had no idea how bad the SunPass failures were until 10Investigates broke the news on June 19 that the state was unable to process tens of millions of toll transactions. It was another week before the state even acknowledged problems, and it has continued to try and downplay the severity of the system disruption by releasing information almost exclusively through optimistic press releases.

Dozens of WTSP questions and records requests to FDOT have gone weeks without answers, including:

  • More than a dozen interview requests since June 29, which FDOT has not yet acknowledged;
  • A July 19 records request related to the state's decision to go live with the ill-fated system overhaul;
  • A series of July questions about the actions of FDOT and the governor in the early days of the crisis;
  • A series of August questions about accountability following multiple contractor and FDOT mistakes.

Below is a running report card of other SunPass issues 10Investigates has been covering:

Transparency

Issue: Downplaying of problems; deceptive press releases; slow response to questions & records requests.

Concern: Floridians had no idea how bad the SunPass failures were until 10Investigates broke the news on June 19 that the state was unable to process tens of millions of toll transactions. It was another week before the state even acknowledged problems, and it continued to try and downplay the severity of the system disruption. No public notice was given when dozens of drivers’ personal data was accidentally compromised in July.

Response: In the two months since 10Investigates' first report on the failures, FDOT has not gotten more forthcoming with information. The agency refuses to acknowledge interview requests and has even sent simple records via U.S. mail, seemingly to try and delay their release. They have sent deceiving press releases out to try and control the media's messaging. And the public still has no explanation -- outside of 10Investigates' reporting -- of how 6 million customers were inconvenienced so badly.

Report Card: Failing

IT problems

Issue: The technology meltdown limited access to SunPass accounts, the SunPass website frequently crashes and billing was delayed by weeks and months.

Concern: Customers couldn't access receipts to get work reimbursements, got hit with large and unpredictable charges when tolls finally were processed, and the delays mean account errors are very difficult to spot and correct.

Response: FDOT, its partners, and its vendors have been working around-the-clock to fix the computer issues, and they have announced there will be no fines or penalties on customers during the ongoing disruption. The toll backlog was finally cleared last week for many SunPass users, but EPass and toll-by-plate customers are still seeing long delays in billing. The state has rolled out its plan to reimburse customers for bank overdraft fees. But account errors -- of which there are multiple indications there are plenty -- are the responsibility of the customer to identify and report before refunds are issued.

Report Card: Improvement noted

Customer service

Issue: Frustrated customers unable to get problems fixed

Concern: Some customers have to wait more than two hours to speak to representatives, and SunPass' promise to respond to emails within two days are going unfulfilled.

Response: An FDOT spokesperson says extra staff members have been dedicated to customer service but has been unable to provide specifics over the course of the last two-plus months. In July, an agency spokesperson touted website improvements and Conduent's reduction of call center wait times. But, in August, the website continued to crash and call center wait times exploded as more drivers discovered unexpected and some inexplicable charges on their accounts.

Report Card: Incomplete

Accountability

Issue: Contractors and FDOT all had a role in system failures; state not in a rush to sort it out.

Concern: Are contractors incentivized to get problems fixed fast? Will individuals who made big mistakes be disciplined? Will the state learn from mistakes to prevent it from happening again?

Response: Last week’s announcement that Florida's inspector general would investigate came only after 75 days and four 10Investigates interviews with Gov. Scott. No scope has been announced for the investigation, but the governor's office said it would likely be "broad." Payments were halted to Conduent in late June, but 10Investigates revealed the company is still getting paid on other contracts. The state announced an $800,000 fine to Conduent, and it said the company will pay for customers' overdraft reimbursements as well. However, no fines or penalties have been mentioned for corporation Atkins, the general contractor responsible for oversight on the project, or HNTB, the corporation that oversaw the awarding of the contract to embattled Conduent in the first place.

Report Card: Incomplete

Toll-by-Plate

Issue: Customers who use toll-by-plate or other mail billing have not received bills yet.

Concern: It appears the state has been unable to match all of the transactions to vehicle owners, delaying the posting of charges. Viewers are also reporting errors in plate identification, landing other drivers' tolls on their accounts.

Response: An FDOT spokesperson has been saying for months all transactions will eventually be billed to customers "once quality assurance processes are completed." No word from the state when that will be yet.

Report Card: Failing

Want to view an interactive timeline of the SunPass maintenance woes? Click or tap here.

►Send your SunPass issues and other story tips confidentially to 10Investigates' Noah Pransky on Facebook or email him at npransky@wtsp.com