FL Senate panel grills judges over "Taj Mahal" courthouse
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01/12/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Some testy exchanges happened over what’s being called the Taj Mahal courthouse in Tallahassee today when a state Senate panel grilled those involved in its construction. Two of the judges who allegedly sought the pricey facility amid major budget shortfalls apologized for exceeding the building’s estimated cost. But the hearing leaves quite a few unanswered questions.

Committee Chair Mike Fasano opened the hearing by noting it takes place against a backdrop of state government agencies being forced to run on bare-bones budgets.

"Everyone has felt the pain and everyone has been asked to sacrifice including most, and I stress most, in the state court system."

The New Port Richey Republican added that the 110,000 square-foot courthouse cost taxpayers nearly $50 million, a number expected to exceed $70 million once bonds are paid off. He said to expect taxpayers to foot the bill during a recession is the epitome of arrogance.

"You went crazy and you spent money, sadly, like drunken sailors."

The Senate Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriation assembled to find out how lawmakers passed such a costly project. In 2007, an amendment authorizing project funding was added to a transportation bill in the final days of the legislative session. Senator John Thrasher said the blame should ultimately lie with the legislature for signing off on the courthouse.

"The ultimate buck stops right here with this Florida Legislature."

Fasano said legislators do bare some responsibility, but there needs to be a cooling-off period in place to prevent such last-minute amendments from passing into law virtually unnoticed.

"That never again an expenditure like this be put on to a transportation bill that has nothing to do with transportation."

He added that the bill didn’t spell out the high-end materials for courthouse furnishings, such as African mahogany.

"We did not approve African mahogany. We did not approve two roving rooms with carpet that is so plush that you would enjoy to have that in your own home. We did not approve granite counter-tops nor did we approve bathrooms in each judge's chamber that happens to be soundproof. I still haven't gotten that one yet but soundproofing bathrooms, that's correct, yes. And the list goes on."

The panel was armed with numerous emails between staff at the state Department of Management Services and judges from the first circuit court of appeal, the court for which the new courthouse was built. David Faulkenberry, that department’s interim secretary, said there were two judges in particular who weighed in on the project.

"We had a lot of conversations with Judge Hawkes, and Judge Thomas. I think they would, not to speak for them, they would agree with that and those are the two parties that we had the majority of conversations with."

He said the judges had an uncommon amount of say when it came to the project’s details. Senator Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat from Tampa, noted two Department of Management Service employees who objected to relinquishing authority to the judges are no longer with the department, and asked why nobody else spoke up.

"They expressed concern about the overarching attitude of control exhibited by the judges. But I guess I really want to know why did you all agree to allow judges to have control so much so that you alter your usual contracting procedures to allow them that say? Did anybody threaten you or intimidate you to the point that you felt that you had to do that in order secure or keep or maintain your position?"

Senator Ronda Storms agreed. The Hillsborough Republican said the state needs to do more to protect whistleblowers.

"You all got political pressure and somebody's knees buckled in the face of that political pressure. So you did what you knew was not right when everybody said this is not right, we should not be doing this. The first order of business is there should be an avenue, a way, when somebody is getting this kind of political pressure, there should be a pressure release valve so you can turn the light on and pull the curtain back and say 'you know what? people did this to save their jobs.'"

Both judges that Management Services Administrator David Faulkenberry named testified before the panel. Judge Paul Hawkes began his testimony with an apology but defended the project. He said African mahogany was used at the suggestion of a woodworker who said it was easier to work with. The Taj Mahal’s marble countertops, he said, stem from the legislature’s having advocated hard work surfaces for state employees. There were some tough questions he didn’t clearly answer.

Fasano:

"You mention in one of the emails, I believe it was, where 'you have to kiss rings', 'you have to go kiss the ring'. Who's ring, or rings, were you referring to?"

Hawkes:

"I don't recall."

Fasano:

"You don't recall?"

Hawkes:

"No."

Fasano:

"Ah, judge.."

Hawkes:

"I do know that it is important..."

Fasano:

"Would you allow this type of testimony to be allowed in a courtroom? With somebody saying 'I don't recall'?"

The other judge was Bradford Thomas. Fasano said that Thomas wasn’t even planning on attending the hearing, but did so at the request of State Supreme Court Judge Charles Canady. Thomas also apologized.

"To the extent that any expenditures were made on this building and any construction done that exceeds the legislative intent and has offended you and this committee, then I sincerely apologize."

The hearing ended after two hours, though the panel said there is still a lot left to discuss. Last week Governor Rick Scott signed an executive order freezing stimulus-funded projects by requiring each one exceeding one million dollars in cost undergo review. The St. Petersburg Times reports that could affect Orlando’s Sun Rail, The Selmon Expressway-I-4 connection in Tampa, and other transportation projects across the state. Scott’s spokesperson said such a rule would prevent another Taj Mahal from slipping through during the new governor’s transition period. State Senator Nan Rich, the senate’s Democratic leader called the move is a job killer.

Previous WMNF coverage of the "Taj Mahal" Courthouse

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