Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
The Florida man who uncovered a government scheme to extract personal information from motorists at toll booths has also discovered the state is not using the information for the reason it claims.
As WND reported, Joel Chandler noticed that Florida toll workers were detaining – he says illegally – motorists who paid tolls with $20, $50 and $100 bills until they divulged personal information that was then logged in a state database.
Chandler, who tested multiple toll booths with larger bills and filmed the encounters, told WND that the information collected on the “Bill Detection Reports” was inconsistent: sometimes – but not always – including the make and model of vehicle, the driver’s name, sex, race, address, phone number, physical description and driver’s license number.
Was it to help catch counterfeiters trying to pass off illegal bills, as Florida DOT internal e-mails suggest? Apparently not.
Chandler’s public records request on the motorist detentions revealed yet another record being kept on counterfeit bills, for which he also filed a public records request.
“What we got back was an Excel spreadsheet with 885 claims of receiving counterfeit money. The data showed the DOT had received $16,000 in counterfeit bills,” Chandler told WND. “And the form was very specific, outlining who it was that passed counterfeit bills.
“And how many of those were referred to law enforcement?” he posited. “I made a public records request for referrals to law enforcement agencies of any description. Nothing came up. I went to law agencies themselves and asked if the Florida DOT had referred counterfeiters from toll booths. ‘No, never,’ they said. ‘Not one time in history of state?’ I asked. ‘No, never.’”
WND asked Chandler if he meant to say that the Florida DOT had a record of an alleged counterfeit bill in one hand and the name and driver’s license number of person who used it to pay a toll in the other … and then did nothing?
“Yes,” Chandler said. “Which raises the question: Why are they doing this?
“What are they doing with that information? I can only speculate,” Chandler told WND. “All we know is they’re not doing with it what they say they’re doing. Not prosecuting counterfeiters. We don’t know what they’re doing with it.”
Chandler believes that each extended toll-booth stop constitutes at least three felonies for various forms of illegal detention plus a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the government from unlawful search and seizure.
Therefore, he’s been negotiating with the Florida DOT since last summer to end the practice, but Chandler says he’s been lied to and the policy covered up.
“First the DOT denied the policy [of motorist detention] exists,” Chandler told WND. “But that deception became pretty obvious when my public records requests found the policy outlined in their policies and procedures manual. It was pretty hard to deny once we got copy of the manual.”
He continued, “They also told me they’d stop the practice, but upon another further records requests, we found e-mails that showed they had only temporarily suspended the program. In fact, there were orders to keep the reports on hand for when they restarted it.”
An advocate for government transparency, Chandler told WND he has sued various agencies in the past for violations of the state’s Public Records Act and won.
Now, he’s bringing a class-action lawsuit against those connected to the toll-booth policy, but he told WND his motive has nothing to do with personal gain.
“I’m not seeking money; I haven’t received a dime,” Chandler said. “I’m just asking the state to acknowledge what it’s done, apologize and quit doing it.”
A common practice?
Chandler did say, however, that given the size and scope of the toll-booth policy, a judge who ruled against the state could deal a heavy blow to Florida’s budget.
“One of first things we wanted to find out was how many times they’d been doing it,” Chandler explained. “‘We don’t know,’ was their response. ‘How many records exist?’ I asked. ‘We don’t know, too many to count.’ I asked how many forms they printed, but was told again, ‘We don’t know.’
“So I got a hold of their order forms for printing the Bill Detection Reports [through another public records request],” he explains. “In one, 15-month period the DOT had ordered over 1.8 million of the forms. One toll plaza, for example, ordered 15,000 of the forms and a few months later another 15,000.”
Chandler did the math, extrapolating over the 4-year period he says the policy has been in effect.
“The potential financial liability for the state in this lawsuit is enormous,” Chandler said. “I think we can document 5 million toll-booth detentions. Even if judge awards a very small amount per violation, that’s a huge amount of money.”
In light of the pending lawsuit, the Florida DOT has refrained from talking to the media about the issue.