Some controversies just never seem to go away in Florida. That is a sign of dysfunction in state government.
The Department of Transportation said this month it will end its failed relationship with Conduent State & Local Solutions, a Maryland vendor hired to modernize SunPass, the electronic highway tolling lifeline for residents, businesses and tourists.
“Let’s start talking about the next procurement,” DOT Secretary Kevin Thibault told the Tampa Bay Times.
For that reason alone — the next SunPass contract — it’s imperative that Florida get to the bottom of all that went wrong with the Conduent deal and enact changes to make sure this never happens again. Reform is needed all the more because Florida is determined to build even more toll roads.
DOT made the right decision, even though Conduent will be on the job for three more years (the deal was for seven years with a seven-year renewal option). DOT’s action came two days after the Times reported the latest SunPass fiasco, with serious problems at major airports, where the vendor was accused of backlogs, customer parking over-billings, failing to reimburse airports and slipshod responses to complaints. Conduent had already been slapped with $8 million in fines for deficiencies on a contract worth an estimated $600 million.
Problems with this contract took hold in the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott as questions of impropriety haunted it from the start.
Conduent, a Xerox spinoff company, won the job in 2015, but a competing vendor’s bid challenge forced delays until the state made a highly unusual payment of $3.6 million to the rival to withdraw its protest. It looked like hush money — courtesy of Florida taxpayers. When Conduent finally took charge, the company seemed overwhelmed.
The vendor’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, Brian Ballard, has been a big Scott supporter. It came to light last year that Scott had a $5 million investment in a hedge fund with a $127 million stake in Conduent, and a Texas billionaire who was a major Conduent investor co-hosted a fund-raiser for Scott’s U.S. Senate race.
Conduent’s track record speaks for itself. The firm has faced criticism in at least six other states, including California, where a class-action lawsuit claimed that 16,000 toll violation notices were sent to motorists who never got bills in the first place.
State Sen. Tom Lee, a Tampa-area Republican who oversees transportation issues, loudly questioned that $3.6 million payment to Conduent’s rival, but answers have not been forthcoming. That’s wrong.
The Legislature has a duty to shine a bright light in the darkest corners of the vast state bureaucracy. The lack of diligence by state officials in getting to the bottom of the SunPass fiasco shows a callous disregard for Florida taxpayers, not to mention millions of tourists who are the lifeblood of the Florida economy.
The Legislature should follow the advice of state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, to hold hearings on the Conduent contract and call relevant witnesses to discuss what they knew and defend their actions. The more powerful the better, too. The DOT secretary at the time, Ananth Prasad, is now a lobbyist for a transportation builders’ group. The exercise would especially help DOT itself, which like most state agencies is beset by high turnover.
“Most people are gone,” Thibault told the Sun Sentinel. “That institutional knowledge has left.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed Thibault, has a fresh opportunity to demand accountability and transparency in the awarding of a highly lucrative contract. At the very least, such scrutiny would reassure taxpayers that their elected leaders were doing their jobs and asking pertinent questions.
The use of electronic tolling and billing is here to stay, and the state’s population could surpass 25 million by 2030. It’s about time Florida figured out how to get this right.
An editorial from the South Florida SunSentinel.