Because Florida Gov. Rick Scott began his term by deleting his transition emails due to "an error," his announcement last May that he was making his emails public on a website called "Project Sunburst" all in the name of "transparency," the news was met with a certain amount of skepticism.
As it turns out, there was good reason to be skeptical.
If you've ever spent any time perusing those emails as I have, you noticed a couple of things. The emails tended to be random and spotty at best, and there was rarely much in the way of follow ups. Now, that last one isn't really that surprising. Most news accounts involving the governor end with "Scott was not available for comment" or "calls to the governor's office were not returned." The other thing you notice about the emails is how overwhelmingly positive they are. Page after page are filled with subject headings like "Stand Strong," or "We Support You!" and "Thank You!" Normally that might not seem too unusual, but with a governor as unpopular as Rick Scott you would expect more than a little "negative feedback."
And what subject was most notable among the emails of support? An overwhelming amount of encouragement favoring Scott's recent new-found interest in "voter roll integrity."
Who knew Scott's voter purge was so popular?
On Monday, reporters from The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times questioned the "unrealistically high percentage of favorable emails on the public database." The governor's office subsequently issued a statement, admitting to the use of two separate email accounts. Email from Scott's official state account weren't posted on the public records site. Instead they posted mail from another email account, this one for an email address given mostly to Scott's "conservative supporters:"
It also announced that it would phase out the address which Scott solely used to respond to email. That email address — which was not on any official state website — appears on many Tea Party websites across the state, under the heading “Governor Rick Scott’s email.”
“Effective this week, emails sent or received using the official website contact form will also be added to the Sunburst system,” said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess, who emphasized that the governor’s emails are always available through a public records request.
Other "supportive emails" from the website were over the current controversy involving Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll who also has a secondary account that’s not listed on state websites. According to the Bradenton Herald, the dual-email strategy has already impacted media coverage for both Scott and Carroll:
Reporters—acting at the urging of Scott—have relied on the Sunburst database rather than filing a public records request for official emails. Several reporters have used those emails to gauge public sentiment on a host of issues, and the informal reviews have returned skewed results in favor of the governor.
Several people who were present when the initiative was announced by Scott’s former chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, said they had no idea that it only included the governor’s unpublished account. That was never mentioned during the press conference.
“It was always my understanding that all of the governor’s email accounts were going to be listed,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “I find it very odd and misleading that we’re only getting the [positive] stuff.”
Scott and his staff have also used other measures to "promote" the voter purge, using the public to do so through Facebook and Twitter. Earlier this month the Republican Party of Florida used party funds to promote the purge in emails from Scott to his supporters, asking "Will you help me share this victory for Florida voters?"
Still, Scott's office is defending the Project Sunburst website, saying:
It's “most transparent public records system in Florida state government,” and they say Scott’s official state account was not displayed because of concern for the privacy of people who include personal information in their emails to the governor.
Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, a good governance organization, criticized the failure to put all emails on Project Sunburst.
“Project Sunburst should not be used as a propaganda machine,” said Krassner. “When you leave transparency in the hands of officials to pick and choose what they want to share with the public, problems arise.”
Will this mean more transparency from Scott's office in the future though? Probably not.
Scott was not available for comment.