Florida Legislators Ok Payment for Tallahassee Courthouse 'Taj Mahal' Art

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Associated Press Release

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida is paying more than $500,000 to a pair of contractors to resolve a dispute over artwork for a new courthouse.

A legislative panel on Thursday approved the payment in order to end several lawsuits related to the construction of the 1st District Court of Appeal building.

The $48.8 million structure, which opened about two years ago in Tallahassee, has been criticized for being too expensive and too opulent. Critics dubbed it a "Taj Mahal" because it included private kitchens and bathrooms for each judge and the structure features granite, etched glass and African mahogany trim.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater had initially refused to pay contractors for about 400 large, framed historic photos for the building. He said it would exceed state spending limits on artwork.


Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

In the latest twist in the saga of the 1st District Court of Appeal, the Florida Department of Management Services and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater are sparring legally about whether the state should pay for historical photographs at the opulent new courthouse.

DMS on Thursday filed a petition asking for a state administrative law judge to determine whether Atwater and the Department of Financial Services should pay $357,000 in invoices for the photographs. Atwater has refused to pay the bills, which prompted an art company that did the work to sue both state agencies in Leon County circuit court.

The Department of Financial Services this month asked to put the circuit-court case on hold so that Atwater could hold a hearing about whether the bills should be paid. That "fact finding" hearing, scheduled to be held Tuesday and Wednesday, spurred DMS --- which oversaw construction of the courthouse and submitted the invoices --- to file Thursday's petition with the Division of Administrative Hearings.

The Department of Financial Services contends in court documents that the Florida Constitution gives Atwater the authority to hold such a hearing and then issue a written order. But DMS disagrees, saying state law requires such matters to go before an administrative law judge --- and that Atwater has already declined to pay the bills.

"These factual disputes involve the CFO himself, and the parties affected by his actions need to have these issues resolved in accordance with … Florida Statutes, not before the advocate or someone employed by him,'' the petition says.

Atwater signed a notice this week that said his designee, Donald Dowdell, would conduct the hearings Tuesday and Wednesday. Atwater wrote that the "public interest requires me, under my constitutional authority … to settle claims against the state, and in doing so to make an independent determination of the justice or legality of the claim" dealing with the photographs.

The legal wrangling between state agencies is the latest development in the controversy about the Tallahassee courthouse, which was completed in 2010 and has been dubbed the "Taj Mahal" because of its extravagant design and décor. The project and a subsequent investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission ultimately led to the resignation of former Chief Judge Paul Hawkes.

Signature Art Gallery Inc. received a contract to reproduce historical photographs and install them throughout the courthouse. But it filed the circuit-court lawsuit last year against the state agencies and general contractor Peter R. Brown Construction, Inc., after Atwater's office refused to pay for the work

The Department of Financial Services said, at least in part, that it could not agree to pay for "decorative" items.

The department has already lost one round in the Division of Administrative Hearings, as Judge June McKinney found last month that it had improperly relied on a rule to deny payment for the photographic work. Peter R. Brown Construction filed that case and has introduced McKinney's ruling into the circuit-court lawsuit.

In a document filed in the lawsuit, Signature Art Gallery argued Atwater should not be able to hold a hearing on whether to pay the bills, describing the move as a "delay tactic."

"Any suggestion that the CFO should now conduct a due process hearing to make another final determination in this matter makes a mockery out of the entire notion of due process,'' Signature's attorneys wrote. "Further delay is unwarranted and will merely exacerbate the already substantial damage to Signature Gallery."

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