TAMPA BAY, Fla. – Tens of thousands of Florida drivers are about to get hit with monster SunPass bills, but the state still doesn't know if it will come before or after Christmas.
This comes after the Florida Department of Transportation and Gov. Scott administration promised Toll-by-Plate (TBP) invoices would be sent in November after missing a previous promise date in October. TBP bills have not been sent to customers since a system overhaul went terribly wrong in early June. Hundreds of thousands of SunPass customers use the toll-by-place invoice option.
On the evening before Thanksgiving, FDOT finally emailed 10Investigates answers to questions asked eight days earlier. A prepared statement suggests vendor Conduent is still unable to iron out its computer problems that led to a system collapse more than five months ago.
“Until we are 100% confident that invoices are accurate, Toll-By-Plate invoices will not be sent to customers,” FDOT Deputy Communications Director Tom Yu wrote. “Customers continue not to be charged any late fees on their Toll-By-Plate accounts and will continue to have the Flex Pay option to pay their invoices.”
FDOT said months ago that customers would have until Feb. 28 to pay off their backlogged TBP invoices, but with bills still not in the mail, the agency has not yet signaled that due date would be moved. The longer the delay lasts, of course, the harder it will be for customers to verify the accuracy of the invoices.
The agency’s public information office has refused to provide public information - or answer questions - over the phone about SunPass since the system collapsed more than five months ago. In September, FDOT Secretary Mike Dew apologized and said his department was committed to more transparency. Yet, little has changed.
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Yu added FDOT “will continue to do everything possible to hold Conduent accountable, including additional financial penalties,” but it has not been able to provide specifics.
FDOT’s contract with Conduent (sec. 2.44) provides financial damages to the state for any TBP transaction where Conduent fails to "initiate the processing of the transaction within 120 days from the day the transaction was received by the Contractor."
The contract says Conduent must "terminate billing and/or processing of the affected transactions, fees and fines," meaning drivers cannot be billed for the June or July tolls they have yet to be invoiced on. Conduent is to reimburse FDOT for those transactions, which could approach $25 million per month.
It does not appear FDOT has implemented any of those actual damages; Monday marks the 179th day of SunPass disruptions, with the state issuing only an $800,000 fine to Conduent on its contract that ballooned to $343 million. It also continues to pay Conduent on several other contracts, even as it promises to stop all payments to the company for its mismanaged SunPass work.
The governor’s office finally launched an internal investigation into the FDOT and Conduent failures in August, but there has been no news yet from his auditor general’s office on its findings.
Scott & DeSantis ties to troubled contractor
10Investigates first reported in July how Conduent's founder, Darwin Deason, and one of its top lobbyists, Brian Ballard, were both raising funds for Scott's Senate campaign. At the time, the governor indicated he was satisfied with FDOT's handling of the crisis, despite its growing billing and customer service problems.
Deason and Ballard were also big contributors to Ron DeSantis' gubernatorial campaign, with the Tampa Bay Times writing, "no lobbying shop is better connected to DeSantis than Ballard Partners...president Brian Ballard is his top money-raiser."
Additional financial ties between Scott and Conduent surfaced when the governor filed federal campaign disclosures indicating he and his wife have millions of dollars invested with a hedge fund, Highline Capital Investment, that owns $127 million in Conduent stock. They also have millions more invested with Engine Capital Management, another fund that invests in Conduent stock.
"Anybody who wants to contribute to...this race knows exactly what I stand for and what I'm going to do," Scott told 10Investigates this summer, dismissing any allegations of favorable treatment for Conduent. "I don't work for special interests (and) I'm doing everything I can to make sure there's no conflicts of interests.
10Investigates asked Governor-elect DeSantis about SunPass problems before the election, and while he didn't provide any specific remedies, he said Conduent "needs to (operate) in a fiscally-responsible way; if they don't, we're going to get someone else to do it."
If you are a Florida driver with concerns or problems related to SunPass disruptions, contact 10Investigates’ Noah Pransky confidentially at email@example.com. Or join the ongoing SunPass conversation on his Facebook page. And let him know who you think should be held accountable.
Here is a running report card of other SunPass problems 10Investigates has tracked:
Issue: Downplaying of problems; deceptive press releases; slow response to questions and 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 spent months downplaying the severity of the system disruption. No public notice was given when dozens of drivers’ personal data were accidentally compromised in July, and no public notice was given when FDOT learned some toll transactions were not appearing accurately on customers' accounts.
Response: FDOT has improved on public records it is statutorily-required to turn over, but it remains unwilling to answer basic questions 10Investigates is asking on behalf of consumers. The agency has refused to field 10Investigates' recent questions by phone, choosing to respond to questions almost exclusively with once-weekly, end-of-day emails on Fridays.T he public still has no explanation -- outside of 10Investigates' reporting -- of how 6 million customers were inconvenienced so badly.
Report Card: Unsatisfactory
Issue: The technology meltdown limited access to SunPass accounts; the SunPass website frequently crashes; billing was delayed by weeks and months.
Concern: It hasn’t just been one computer issue - it’s been virtually every computer issue: customers couldn't access receipts to get work reimbursements; accounts were compromised; transaction logs have widespread inaccuracies; drivers 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 announced there will be no fines or penalties on customers during the ongoing disruption. The toll backlog was finally cleared in mid-August for many SunPass users, but it still isn't clear when Toll-By-Plate customers will get their invoices. Account errors – which may be common – are the responsibility of the customer to identify and report before refunds are issued.
Report Card: Mixed Bag
Issue: Frustrated customers unable to get problems fixed.
Concern: Some customers had to wait nearly five hours to speak to representatives and SunPass' promise to respond to emails within two days is going unfulfilled.
Response: The customer wait times have improved over the course of the six-month saga, as FDOT says it dedicated extra staff members to customer service. 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: Mixed Bag
Issue: Contractors and FDOT all had a role in system failures; the state is 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: The mid-August announcement that Florida's inspector general would investigate came only after 75 days and four 10Investigates interviews with Scott. Payments were halted to Conduent in late June, but 10Investigates revealed the company is still getting paid on other contracts. The state announced only an $800,000 fine to Conduent, when it appears they could be making the company pay off millions of drivers' tolls bills. Also, 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. It appears no FDOT employees have yet been disciplined, even though the agency's management may not have followed proper protocol in approving the testing before SunPass went live with the new system in June. There has still been no word from the governor's inspector general office regarding its investigation.
Report Card: Failing
Issue: Customers who use toll-by-plate or other mail billing have not received bills yet.
Concern: It appears the state was 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 when that will be.
Report Card: Failing
►Want to view an interactive timeline of the SunPass maintenance woes? Click or tap here
►To reach SunPass customer service, call 1-888-865-5352 or click here.