[UPDATE] Troubles of Tallahassee's "Taj Mahal"

By: Julie Montanaro; AP Email
By: Julie Montanaro; AP Email
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has refused to pay $375,647 for art and furniture at what critics are calling Florida

Tallahassee "Taj Mahal" 1st DCA Courthouse

[UPDATE] 3-4 Noon -- TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has refused to pay $375,647 for art and furniture at what critics are calling Florida's "Taj Mahal courthouse."

It was reported Friday that Atwater rejected bills of $357,000 for framed historic photographs and $18,647 for furniture.

The new 1st District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee has
come under fire for such extravagances as private kitchens and
bathrooms for each judge and the lavish use of granite, etched
glass and African mahogany trim.

Atwater said the photos would exceed a $100,000 limit on art in
public buildings. The court contends the photos are wall coverings,
not art.

Atwater also says furniture cannot be paid for from bonds that
financed the courthouse.

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[UPDATE] 1-12 1:45PM --

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

Two judges have apologized for their roles in the construction of a $48.8 million courthouse in Tallahassee that critics are calling a "Taj Mahal."

1st District Court of Appeal Judges Paul Hawkes and Bradford
Thomas said they were sorry during a hearing Wednesday by the
Florida Senate's Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice
Appropriations.

They qualified their statements, though, by apologizing only for
expenditures beyond what the Legislature intended when it approved
the project.

The courthouse includes such amenities as private bathrooms and
kitchens for each of the 15 judges, miles of African mahogany trim,
granite counter and desk tops, etched glass windows, a dome and
massive columns inside and out.

_________________________

[UPDATE] 1-12 9:30AM --

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

A Florida Senate panel is reviewing the construction of a $48.8 million courthouse in Tallahassee that critics are calling the "Taj Mahal."

The Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice
Appropriations is holding the hearing Wednesday.

The 1st District Court of Appeal moved into the domed structure
on Tallahassee's southeast side last month.

It features private bathrooms and kitchens for each of the 15
judges, miles of African mahogany trim, granite counter and desk
tops, etched glass windows and impressive columns inside and out.

Construction costs have been questioned by Chief Financial
Officer Jeff Atwater, who took office Jan. 4, and his predecessor,
Alex Sink.

_______________________________

UPDATED 10.15.2010 9:07am

Tallahassee, Florida (AP) --

Incoming Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos has called for the state's top building official to resign over what critics are calling a "Taj Mahal" courthouse.

In a letter Thursday, October 14 to Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South, the Merritt Island Republican accused her of "irresponsible oversight" that wasted millions of dollars.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink this week released an audit
she said showed the $48.8 million Tallahassee courthouse could have
been built for much less.

South's spokeswoman responded to Haridopolos by pointing out the
secretary works for Gov. Charlie Crist, not the Senate, and that
the building was constructed within a budget set by Haridolpolos
and his fellow lawmakers.

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UPDATED 10.13.2010 11:15am by Julie Montanaro

Two First DCA judges who the CFO says actively participated in decisions about the building of a lavish new courthouse are up for a merit retention vote on the November ballot.

Voters will decide if a total of seven 1st DCA judges deserve to keep their seats. Paul Hawkes and James Wolf, who the CFO’s audit indicates were involved in decisions about construction, design or contracts, are among them.

According to the CFO's audit, Hawkes, along with fellow judges Robert Benton, Bradford Thomas and Edwin Browning flew to Michigan at taxpayer expense in January 2007 to inspect three courthouses there.

The audit shows that in June 2008, Hawkes, Thomas and Judge James Wolf flew back to Michigan to inspect its Hall of Justice on a chartered jet paid for by Peter Brown Construction.

The Florida Supreme Court's Chief Justice, who is also up for a merit retention vote this fall, has asked the Judicial Qualifications Commission to review the conduct of all DCA judges involved.

Judges are up for merit retention votes every six years and according to the Florida Bar, no appellate or supreme court judge has ever been removed from office in such a vote.

Hawkes scored the lowest of all the First DCA judges in a recent Florida Bar merit retention poll of approximately 5,000 attorneys statewide. Just 56% said Hawkes deserved to be retained.

For more information on merit retention and to see the results of that poll yourself, log on to the florida bar web site at www.floridabar.org

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UPDATED 10.12.2010 7:15pm by Julie Montanaro

The public got its first look inside a new district court building that many have dubbed the "Tallahassee Taj Mahal."

Florida's Chief Financial Officer released photos of the courthouse today along with a scathing audit, calling construction and funding of the building a "travesty" that violated more than a dozen laws, codes or internal controls.

"This is imported African mahogany. There are 20 miles of this mahogany in this building," CFO Alex Sink said as she held up a piece of the pricey trim.

CFO Alex Sink described a lavish interior complete with that mahogany trim, granite coutertops, etched glass and more that cost taxpayers a whopping $425 per square foot. Not to mention nearly 357 thousand dollars for art, some of which Sink said was illegally billed as "wallcoverings."

"We pay our teachers in Leon County schools hardlly anything, but they have the money to fly judges around, to put up artwork for the courthouse? I just don't think that's right," said Suzanne Bruce, who works down the street from the courthouse.

Construction continues on the First District Court of Appeals near Southwood. The Financial Services audit found that a maximum cost for the building was not set until more than a year into construction and the 48.8 million dollar courthouse was not competitively bid.

"Instead, they invoked a statutory waiver, but failed to follow the required process and did not even retain the DMS secretary's signature as required," Sink said.

Sink contends some of the 1st DCA judges "bullied" the Department of Management Services, that one essentially became the personal contract manager and that nowhere in the process did anyone consider what was in the taxpayers best interest.

"Things have to be exposed. People need to be held accountable for what we're spending, you know, especially the taxpayers' dollars, my dollars, your dollars," said Dexter Harrell, who drives by the courthouse each day.

The First District Court of Appeals did release a statement this afternoon that said, "The Court did not and could not legally assert control of the project, but was appropriately consulted" throughout the process ... and says it trusted that DMS "followed all applicable laws and regulations." (Full text of statement posted below)

The Department of Management Services did not comment except to say it is carefully reviewing the report and "will address any concerns with the CFO's office." (Full text of statement posted below)

Sink said the new First DCA courthouse is the only courthouse in Florida to be built with bond proceeds. She notes that two years worth of interest on these bonds, approximately $5 million, was taken from the Workers' Compensation Trust Fund instead of the Florida Facilities Pool. In 2008, Sink said, another $5.5 million in extra funding for the courthouse was taken from the Workers' Compensation Trust Fund.
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UPDATED 10.12.2010 7pm by Julie Montanaro

Representative Loranne Ausley, who is now running for Chief Financial Officer, was among the first to raise a red flag about spending for the new First DCA courthouse.

Ausley applauded Sink for conducting the audit and held a brief press conference in front of the courthouse this afternoon.

"We are cutting hearing aids, glasses and dentures for senior citizens, yet we can find $400,000 for pieces of art? That is why people are upset. That is why people don't have confidence in government," Ausley said.

Ausley called the courthouse under construction an "unquestionable indicment" of the culture of corruption in Tallahassee. "It has to stop. Taxpayers can't afford it anymore," Ausley said.

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UPDATED 10.12.2010 6:45pm by Julie Montanaro

CFO Alex Sink sent a letter and a copy of the audit to Florida's Chief Justice and urged him to turn it over to the Judicial Qualifications Commission to determine if disciplinary action is warranted against any of the DCA judges.

Sink called the judges' conduct "questionable" and said the audit suggests their actions may have been prohibited by Article V, Section 13 of the Florida Constitution.

Chief Judge Charles Canaday of the Florida Supreme Court issued this statement late Tuesday afternoon:

“The Supreme Court will thoroughly review the findings of the audit report we received from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink today. As Florida’s chief justice, I take the issues raised in this report very seriously – and I know this is true as well for all my colleagues on the Supreme Court. We will take whatever appropriate action is required, including making any necessary internal reforms to ensure that the public’s money is spent wisely. I have today asked the Court’s inspector general to assist us in the process of identifying such reforms."

“As requested by Ms. Sink, her letter and the audit will be forwarded without further comment to the Judicial Qualifications Commission. I cannot comment on or in any way prejudge the substance of the allegations because questions of judicial ethics ultimately must be decided by this Court if probable cause is found to exist by the JQC.”

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UPDATED 10.12.2010 3:15pm by Julie Montanaro

We called 1st DCA judges Paul Hawkes, Robert Benton and Bradford Thomas for comment on the audit and subsequent remarks by CFO Alex Sink. None of the judges has responded individually, but the court did issue a statement which we have printed in its entirety below.

Sink called one of the judges an "over-active judge" who essentially became the "personal contract manager" for the construction project. She claims DMS abdicated its authority and was "bullied" by the some of the judges.

Sink says four judges traveled to Lansing, Michigan at taxpayer expense to see three courthouses there. That cost $2405 according to the audit. Another trip aboard a chartered jet was paid for by the contractor, Sink said.

Stephen Nevels, the Marshal at the First DCA, issued this statement on behalf of the court:

"We have not had an opportunity to fully review the audit report. However, the design and construction of the new courthouse are the result of a five-year process, involving hundreds of planning decisions and numerous studies by independent consultants. The Department of Management Services has worked closely with the First District Court of Appeal in the Department’s oversight of the construction project. The Court did not and could not legally assert control of the project, but was appropriately consulted by the Department throughout the process. We trust that, in managing the construction of the new courthouse, the Department of Management Services followed all applicable laws and regulations, including those concerning procurement of contractors and materials. The project has come within the budget appropriated by the Legislature and, upon completion, we expect to return close to $1 million to the state treasury."

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UPDATED 10.12.2010 3:10pm by Julie Montanaro

Following the release of the audit, CFO Alex Sink cited an "appalling lack of leadership" at Florida's Department of Management Services.

Sink says the agency broke its own rules and "lost control" of the project, allowing one of the DCA judges to essentially become the "personal contract manager" for construction of the new courthouse.

The Department of Management Services did not respond to those criticisms today, but communications director Linda McDonald did release this statement:

"We received a copy of the CFO’s report of the First DCA courthouse construction project audit late this morning. We are carefully reviewing the report and will address any concerns with the CFO’s office."

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UPDATED 10.12.2010 1:02pm --

Tallahassee, Florida (AP) --

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink says
an audit shows some judges bullied a state agency into building
what critics are calling a "Taj Mahal" courthouse.

Sink on Tuesday, October 12 said the result was a no-bid contract for an opulent building with 20 miles of decorative African mahogany
borders, etched glass and granite that cost taxpayers
millions more than it should have.

Sink, also the Democratic candidate for governor, asked Gov.
Charlie Crist, who oversees the agency that's building the
Tallahassee courthouse, and Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady to
order investigations.

She said rules, guidelines and possibly judicial ethics were
violated but auditors found nothing illegal except for some art
work.

WCTV has further details below, along with the complete release attached above.

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UPDATED 10.12.2010 11:01am

Eyewitness News -- Florida CFO Alex Sink's audit includes 17 Findings which show actions inconsistent with Florida Law, Florida Administrative Code or acceptable internal control practices.

The audit says that DMS did not use competitive bid process for the
courthouse and did not set a maximum price for it until at least a
year into construction.

Sink is also asking the Florida Supreme Court Justice to determine if any of the DCA Judges who lobbied to build the courthouse should be disciplined for it.

CFO Alex Sink's letter to Governor Crist and Chief Justice Canady:

Dear Governor Crist and Chief Justice Canady:

Enclosed is a copy of the Department of Financial Services’ audit report concerning the Department of Management Services (DMS) Fixed Capital Outlay Project to construct the new First District Court of Appeal (1DCA) courthouse. This audit, conducted by my Bureau of Auditing, shows that DMS lost control of the project and spent millions more of taxpayer dollars than was necessary to build this courthouse. The audit lists 17 findings that show actions inconsistent with Florida Statutes, the Florida Administrative Code, or acceptable internal control practices.

I called for the audit following reports in the St. Petersburg Times that pointed to profligate spending of taxpayer dollars on this project; which is particularly notable at a time when our court system – and our state – continues to make cuts to meet budgetary constraints.

I am transmitting a copy to each of you in your capacity as heads of the executive and judicial branches and I strongly urge you to turn this matter over to your Inspectors General for further investigation of the failures outlined in this audit. The audit findings strongly suggest that DMS officials acceded to actions by judges that were inconsistent with the prohibitions of Article V, Section 13 of the Florida Constitution. Mr. Chief Justice, I urge you to convey our audit record to an investigative panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to determine what disciplinary action is warranted for the questionable conduct revealed by the audit.

Florida laws provide common sense internal controls to ensure that state-owned buildings are constructed in the most cost-effective manner possible. In the case of this courthouse, our audit shows that these controls were circumvented and the interests of the state and the taxpayer were not protected.

Two significant categories of failures were found by the audit:

First, the Department of Management Services did not use the time-tested process of competitively bidding out this project, and also began construction on the project without a set maximum price which was not determined for more than a year after construction had commenced. Instead, DMS gave itself an exemption from the statutory requirement for competitive bidding of large state construction projects. Contrary to the statute and its own administrative rule, DMS offered no written justification for its abandonment of the competitive bid process.

Second, this audit reveals that key decisions regarding the courthouse by DMS were ceded to a few powerful 1DCA judges whose level of involvement raises questions of exercising good judgment and potential ethical considerations. DMS ultimately abdicated to the judges its statutory authority in making decisions related to the construction of the courthouse and operated from the outset without a guaranteed maximum price to protect the state’s interests, while the contractor received both a guaranteed maximum profit in addition to fees for services as the construction manager. With no guaranteed maximum price established until more than a year into the project, costs escalated quickly with taxpayers footing the bill.

The lion’s share of those funds – $33.5 million dollars in Florida Facilities Pool bond proceeds – were borrowed money, making the project the only courthouse ever built by the state of Florida with bond proceeds. It is also worth noting that the first two years’ worth of interest on these bonds—approximately $5 million dollars — were taken from the Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund rather than the Florida Facilities Pool. In 2008, $5.5 million in extra funding for the courthouse project was taken from the Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund, over and above the bond funding and despite resolute objection from my office. Especially in these trying economic times, it is not appropriate for any portion of the assessments paid by Florida’s employers and insurers to contribute to the lavish appointments at an appellate courthouse facility.

This audit determined that the annual lease payments due from the 1DCA for the new courthouse will be insufficient to cover the annual debt service, making it the only facility in the pool with a debt service which is subsidized by all other agencies in the pool. Since this building is nearly complete and the taxpayers’ money has already been committed, I recommend that the best possible use of this space be identified before the building is allowed to open, taking into consideration the needs of other state agencies and the public.

The audit clearly shows that without compromising in any way the functional aspects of the new courthouse facility, this project could have been – and should have been – constructed within the budget of the original Legislative appropriation. Taxpayers are entitled to expect that officials responsible for construction of new state-owned facilities exercise proper stewardship of funding, and as this audit shows, that due measure of stewardship was absent here.

Sincerely,

Alex Sink

Chief Financial Officer

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THE COMPLETE AUDIT IS ATTACHED ABOVE

Stay with WCTV for more.

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UPDATED 9.29.2010 6:55pm by Julie Montanaro

The so-called Tallahassee Taj Mahal may be raising eyebrows across the state, but a Leon County grand jury today refused to investigate it further.

Ours were the only cameras rolling when the grand jury wrapped up its deliberations this afternoon and State Attorney Willie Meggs told the judge the panel did not wish to further investigate lavish spending at Florida's new First District Court of Appeals.

Meggs says there were never any allegations of criminal wrongdoing in the building of the new courthouse, only questions about its funding.

"We presented the issue to them as best as we understand what the issue would be to determine if they wanted to take this on as a grand jury project, and as you heard not a sufficient number of the grand jurors wanted to take it on as a project."

The $48 million courthouse has become a political football as politicians blame each other for approving a building complete with private bathrooms, granite counter tops and big-screen televisions.

"The need for the courthouse, I think, was determined, and so now it's the building of it," Meggs said after the grand jury completed its review. "Whether we have ... it's plush, how deep the carpet is, that's not really a concern that I believe the State Attorney's Office should be involved in."
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Updated 9/29 12:56pm:

A grand jury has decided not to take any action to investigate funding for the First District Court of Appeals.

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Updated 9/29 12:40pm:

A Leon County Grand Jury has finished its review of what
some call the Tallahassee Taj Mahal. The Grand Jury is now waiting on
a judge.

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Tallahassee, Florida (AP) --

A grand jury will consider a citizen's complaint about what critics are calling a "Taj Mahal" courthouse being built in Tallahassee.

State Attorney Willie Meggs said on Wednesday, September 22 that he'll ask the panel to look into the matter when it meets Sept. 29.

Meggs declined to identify the citizen who complained about the
$48 million building. It will house the 15-member 1st District
Court of Appeal.

Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis says he tried without
success to get Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the ornate structure in
2007 after learning of a "behind-the-scenes" deal between appeal
judges and lawmakers to build it.

Crist says he doesn't recall the request from Lewis, who then
was chief justice.


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