By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Last week I told the story of Joel Chandler, the public records advocate from Lakeland who is taking on the Florida Department of Transportation and the Turnpike system.
Chandler, who has made public records requests a way of life since 2008 (he has a web site called FOGWatch), crossed paths with the DOT during a fishing outing to Fort Lauderdale last summer.
Having visited the bank just before leaving, he was carrying eight $100 bills. When he went through the toll booth on the turnpike, he gave the toll collector one of the $100s and in return was given a form to fill out. The form — called a “bill detection form” — asked for his car info and address. The forms were part of an anti-counterfeiting effort.
Now, Chandler is a person who truly appreciates and understands the power of public information. He demurred.
If he didn’t want to provide the information, he was told, his only option was to come up with some other form of payment.
Before Chandler pulled away, he was already wondering: Was it legal for the turnpike authority to force him to give up personal information in order to use U.S. currency? And how often was this happening?
Over the coming months, Chandler and his brother Robert taped their interactions with toll collectors when they used $20s, $50s and $100s on the turnpike. And Chandler began doing what he does best: filing records requests asking for e-mails and memos. He got thousands of them, including e-mails suggesting that lawyers within the department had apprehensions about the practice. The e-mails also showed that the practice was stopped after Chandler began questioning the bill detection forms. And that in two-and-a-half years, while $2 billion in tolls were collected, only $16,000 in counterfeit bills were intercepted.
All that led Chandler to file a federal lawsuit alleging the actions on the turnpike amounted to illegal detention. Meanwhile, the turnpike is still not collecting the forms. Chandler’s lawsuit is asking for that to become permanent policy.
Which makes you wonder: Why doesn’t the Turnpike Authority just agree to that demand and end all the legal stuff?
Wonder on. Because the DOT “cannot comment on pending litigation,” said department spokesman Dick Kane.
And while we’re wondering, if there’s such little payoff on the counterfeit end, why go to all this trouble?
Chandler does not have the DOT’s reluctance to talk. He offers three interesting non-counterfeit reasons for collecting the forms:
- Harass motorists into using SunPass.
- Accumulate information that could be sold to marketers.
And the most provocative …
- It’s information that feeds the Florida Fusion Center.
“You’re going to think I’m one of these people who wears a tin foil hat,” Chandler says as an introduction to talk about the Fusion Center. “But these fusion centers were funded with Department of Homeland Security money and they collect information on people like you and me. There are 72 of them around the United States.”
Chandler was indeed starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist.
But then I Googled “Florida Fusion Center” and, sure enough, Chandler was right. These fusion centers are big data collection points that have been accumulating and analyzing information post-9/11. There’s a statewide center in Tallahassee, and regional centers in Central, Southeast and Southwest Florida. Future fusion centers are planned for Pensacola, Jacksonville and Tampa.
Hmmm. It does make you wonder.
And while we’re at it, let’s turn our wondering lens on Chandler: Why would a former copy machine salesman spend all his time and money forcing agencies to follow the public records law?
Why would he take the DOT to federal court just so he doesn’t have to give up the most basic of information?
Tell the truth. Wouldn’t you just have just filled out the damned form and gone on your way (maybe briefly muttering under your breath, if it bothered you)?
In a world that suddenly seems too willing to fill out unquestioningly the form and move on to the next toll booth, Chandler is stepping up. All those public records requests and demands to privacy are his personal stand against apathy and corruption.
“The overwhelming majority of public records requests have traditionally been brought by newspapers,” Chandler said. “Well, newspapers are dying. And the ones left are fighting for their lives. I’m really concerned because a democracy cannot survive without a vibrant press.”
“I almost got arrested for trespassing,” Chandler said.
With Gov. Rick Scott pushing for the privatization of prisons, they’re now in Chandler’s public records sights. He had walked into the prison office at Moore Haven and said eight words sure to scare any secretive bureaucrat: “I’m here to make a public records request.”
Chandler was told he was trespassing on private property. He answered that, because the prison contracts with the state, he has a right to its records.
“We have a growing number of private prisons in the state,” Chandler said. “We’re going to have 16 before we’re done with it. CCA is a company that’s going to make an enormous amount of money from its relationship with the state. It needs to be watched.”