Dockery wonders what's cooking in e-mails

By Marc Caputo, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Published Monday, December 14, 2009

TALLAHASSEE — Innocent breakfast-food reference? Or clever trick to hide the truth?

A dispute over the use of the words "pancake" and "French toast" in official Florida Department of Transportation e-mails has emerged in Sen. Paula Dockery's crusade against a controversial Central Florida railroad deal.

Dockery discovered the breakfast food e-mails in a heap of rail-related correspondence she requested from Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and others. Dockery said the names were being used as cover in agency correspondence about the rail deals.

"It is evident through the words, actions and inactions of these state officials that they are actively circumventing transparency laws," Dockery said. "Using code words in an effort to disguise the true content of an e-mail is a violation of the public trust."

Dockery, a Republican gubernatorial candidate from Lakeland, wants Kopelousos to resign. Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer running for governor, said Kopelousos should quit if she tried to get around the law and hide public records.

Kopelousos said she didn't do anything wrong. "We didn't circumvent anything," she said.

The three e-mails in question were the idea of her second in command, Kevin Thibault, who sometimes has trouble getting ahold of her.

His solution: Write a weird subject line that she can easily see, distinguish and search for on her BlackBerry.

"It was something eye-catching," Kopelousos said.

After Thibault's Oct. 20 e-mail headlined "Pancakes," Kopelousos sent a separate rail-related e-mail Nov. 11 titled "pancake." Then, Monday, Thibault followed up his original message with "French Toast."

All of it related to railroad issues and the recently concluded legislative special session, where SunRail foe Dockery failed to kill the rail legislation now awaiting Gov. Charlie Crist's signature.

Kopelousos said she thinks only three of the 8,073 e-mails contained breakfast language and that they were given to Dockery's office Thursday. But the delivery of the e-mails was a little late for Dockery's taste.

She had requested the records before the session ended Tuesday. The agency said a clerical error delayed the release of all the documentation.

Dockery is pressing on: "I have done a follow-up public records request to the Florida Department of Transportation for any and all e-mails relating to breakfast foods code words."

On the list: pancake, French Toast, bacon, egg, cereal, waffle, grits and sausage.