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Open records request uncovers ‘inappropriate’ ODOT emails

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Good fun, or an inappropriate waste of tax dollars? A state organization says they've been unfairly targeted, after released emails go viral.

When the group 'watchdog.org' did a story on compressed natural gas vehicles, they set their sights on the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT).

"I did some stories in Colorado about it, decided to do an open records request for emails in Oklahoma," said Arthur Kane, investigative reporter. "They gave me about 10,000 pages of emails.

Thousands more than Kane imagined, but sprinkled among them, he found a troubling trend.

"I started noticing emails that seemed inappropriate," said Kane.

He says the emails included long-winded jokes referencing killing Muslims, and disparaging the President.  One of the more unusual he says was a picture of a heavy set woman in a bikini, which showed up a few times, all while workers were on state time.

"We discussed it with editors," said Kane. "We felt it was relevant to show people what employees are doing with their tax money, resources and time."

Now ODOT's biting back at Watchdog. They released a statement to KFOR today calling on the credibility of the site:

There is no argument that the referenced two e-mails sent ODOT employees from their state accounts are an inappropriate use of state time and resources. We are concerned that Watchdog.org, is reporting, not on department policy or official actions, but rather on a specific, isolated personnel matter using anecdotal material from information provided for a different story. We believe the department has been singled out by Watchdog.org, and treated unfairly for being exceptionally responsive, comprehensive, and transparent in fulfilling their request for information in accordance with state law governing open records.

We’re additionally concerned that this impacts the credibility of Watchdog.org as a serious “watchdog” source that reports on real policy and fiscal issues.

This is especially relevant considering the article quotes heavily from an unsolicited e-mail sent from a personal (non-ODOT) account to an ODOT employee’s account, which leaves us puzzled as to what their “watchdog” role is in this case – junk e-mails sent to public e-mail accounts?

We have expressed these concerns to Watchdog.org.

ODOT claims that only two of the emails recovered were actually sent by ODOT employee emails.

But Kane believes, their response is vindication for his article.

"The fact that they confirmed that it violated their policy I felt was relevant," said Kane. "I put in a request saying 'give me emails about compressed natural gas vehicles', and this is what they gave me."