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CFO Jeff Atwater, Gov. Rick Scott settle 'Taj Mahal' art case

TALLAHASSEE — After two years, two lawsuits and seven appeals, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday agreed to pay Signature Art Gallery for framed photos ordered by judges at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Instead of the $357,000 tab due when the photographs were completed, the state will pay almost $515,000, a price that includes storage and legal fees paid by the gallery owner.

The payment must be approved by members of the Legislative Budget Commission at a meeting in January. Once paid for, the art will go to the Department of State's Division of Cultural Affairs. If the Commission rejects the payment, the lawsuit will continue.

Scott and Atwater said the settlement, helped along by court-ordered mediation, is in the state's best interest. It will end expensive litigation and safeguard taxpayer money while also signaling that the state's contracting system "must be cost effective, accountable and transparent,'' they said in a joint release.

The settlement was announced Tuesday, the day Atwater had been scheduled to answer questions under oath from lawyers who represent the gallery and Peter R. Brown Construction of Clearwater.

The nearly 400 framed historical photos are of watermelon festivals, tobacco farms, lighthouses, greased pig contests and dozens of other North Florida places. The photos and frames, selected by judges at the appellate court after they saw similar photos posted in legislative halls, were to hang in hallways throughout the building which many have dubbed a "Taj Mahal'' because it has miles of African mahogany, granite countertops and desks.

Mary Maida, owner of the gallery, had a signed contract with the construction company that was approved by the Department of Management Services but payment was derailed by Atwater and his predecessor, Alex Sink.

Sink questioned an expenditure on art that would apparently violate a state law that limits expenditures on art in public buildings to $100,000. Atwater questioned whether the state could legally use money budgeted for construction of the building for photographs.

In a statement, Maida said: "I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement so that my small business can be paid. … I am hopeful that the Legislative Budget Commission will approve the agreement."

CFO Jeff Atwater, Gov. Rick Scott settle 'Taj Mahal' art case 12/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 11:25pm]
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