Editorial: Keep digging on SunPass contract

Revelations that the Florida Department of Transportation paid a competing bidder millions to go away raise more questions about favoritism.
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge photographed from a reporter's car in 2015.
WILL VRAGOVIC | Times A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge photographed from a reporter's car in 2015.
Published March 13

Sen. Tom Lee is right. The Thonotosassa Republican says someone should be held accountable for the fiasco involving a lucrative state contract to process SunPass tolls. The entire episode reeks of favoritism and conflicts of interest, and state lawmakers and the state inspector general should investigate.

In the latest revelation, the Tampa Bay Times’ Lawrence Mower reports that the Florida Department of Transportation paid a company $3.6 million in 2015 to drop its bid protest over the SunPass contract that went to Conduent State & Local Solutions. Former employees of the company that filed the protest called the payment unprecedented; the former DOT secretary who supported the payment says it’s not unusual. But somebody in Tallahassee really, really wanted Conduent to win the contract that was initially worth $287 million but has increased substantially.

Here is something else that is unusual. Former Gov. Rick Scott had financial ties to Conduent. The Times reported in October that public documents showed Scott and his wife, Ann, had invested at least $5 million in a fund managed by Highline Capital Management. By late June, Highline held 7 million shares of stock worth $127 million in Conduent Inc., the parent company of the SunPass vendor. And Scott attended a Senate campaign fundraiser in May in Dallas where the hosts included Darwin Deason, a Texas investor and a major shareholder in Conduent.

It’s unclear from Scott’s Senate financial disclosure form when he and his wife invested in the fund managed by Highline. Until his successful campaign for the Senate, this level of detail about his financial holdings wasn’t available because federal disclosure requirements shed more light than what Scott voluntarily shared with Floridian. And early in his first term as governor Scott put his investments in a blind trust that turned out not to be entirely blind.

What is clear is that Conduent had friends in high places in Tallahassee during Scott’s time as governor. Conduent, then known as Xerox, was chosen to take over processing of all of the state’s SunPass tolls even though it had experienced problems in other states. Now it turns out that Cubic Transportation Systems was paid $3.6 million in public money to drop its bid protest. And the favorable treatment of Conduent did not stop when the contract was secured.

When Conduent finally took over last summer, its system could not handle all of the SunPass transactions. The state said in August it would reimburse motorists who were charged bank fees and overdraft charges because of glitches. Scott’s office asked for an investigation, but in the midst of his Senate campaign the governor took no action for nearly two months as complaints mounted. Last month, Conduent sent its first invoice to be paid in more than seven months.

This is a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Taxpayers deserve more answers about how and why Conduent won it -- particularly when its performance record was less than stellar and the governor at some point had undisclosed financial ties to the company. Now there is a new governor, a new head of the Department of Transportation and new interest from Lee and other state legislators. Fresh faces should take a fresh look. Keep digging.