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10Investigates: FDOT internal SunPass emails reveal attempt to hide problems

As tolling problems mounted, FDOT executives debated how much to reveal publicly. Their decision: very little.

TAMPA BAY, Fla. - Internal Florida Department of Transportation emails from mid-June – when a SunPass system overhaul started to meltdown – reveal private discussions between executives and consultants about public messaging.

The emails also unveil FDOT's behind-the-scenes decisions to downplay the problems to Floridians.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: 10Investigates' ongoing SunPass series

The emails, originally requested by 10Investigates a month ago, were only provided this week. They detail FDOT conversations about how to respond to questions from media outlets, including 10News, and how quickly those questions should be answered.

The agency has spent the last month distributing information almost exclusively through optimistic press releases; the majority of 10Investigates' information, interview and record requests have gone unfulfilled. However, the requests haven't gone unnoticed.

"The only comment I have is that we still don’t say when we will begin posting; I’m not sure we know ourselves," consultant Leigh Anne Yarbrough wrote to FDOT executives on June 18, suggesting an opportunity to be more transparent with the public.

Instead, the agency chose to respond with a press release the next day that provided little explanation as to what had gone wrong and how bad it was.

Yarbrough again suggested a more transparent approach, drafting a release that began, "The SunPass Customer Service Center experienced unexpected challenges when implementing our new system."

However, agency executives chose not to take her advice and downplayed the enormous system challenges as an "inconvenience."

Other internal FDOT emails detail additional draft language that was ultimately stripped from customer notifications, including a June 12 email draft to customers that started on a conciliatory note:

The SunPass organization remains committed to delivering a great customer experience, we are also disappointed by these first few days. Not letting down our customers and team members. . . the rollout of the new system should have been far better.

But by the time that release was reviewed by executives and distributed to millions of SunPass users, its message was more subdued:

We appreciate your patience during the SunPass system maintenance period. We are aware that many customers are experiencing difficulties accessing the SunPass website, mobile app and telephone system. We anticipated a high volume of customers trying to access the system once it came back online; and although the increased demand was anticipated, it was higher than expected.

We express our deepest apologies to our customers who depend on our service. Please know that we are working diligently to resolve this as quickly as possible and that our goal is to provide SunPass customers with the best possible service in every interaction with our people and our systems.

Each release sent to media outlets and customers promised the problems would be resolved soon. Even though, behind the scenes, even FDOT communications officials were puzzled why they couldn't access their own personal accounts.

"I have been trying myself to set up my account and can't do anything," Interim Communications Director Ed Seifert wrote in one of the emails.

It would be weeks before the state was able to start processing its backlog of more than 100 million toll transactions.

While FDOT still won't provide numbers on how significantly its backlog has grown, a 10Investigates analysis estimates about 135 million tolls remain unprocessed. That could put the state in a $135 million hole at the moment, and customers in a position where they will not see full access to their accounts and tolling history for months.

10Investigates has been breaking news on SunPass’ massive behind-the-scenes problems for a month, as well as how the state should have known about its contractor’s troubled past in five other states, how it appeared Gov. Rick Scott was unaware of the problems in mid-June and how FDOT kept awarding more money to the politically-connected contractor even as warning signs started to appear.

If you are a Florida driver with concerns or problems related to SunPass disruptions, contact 10Investigates’ Noah Pransky at npransky@wtsp.com. Or join the ongoing SunPass conversation on his Facebook page. And let him know who you think should be held accountable.

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►Phone and email SunPass customer service inquiries can be made here.

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