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Governor's Mansion battle drags on in court

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge Tuesday rejected accusations by Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Cabinet that challenged the integrity of John K. Aurell, a prominent North Florida lawyer and son-in-law of former Gov. LeRoy Collins.

"I see no breach of contract and no violation of ethics on the part of Mr. Aurell,'' Judge John C. Cooper declared as he heard arguments from 14 lawyers who are battling over whether the state can buy land near the Governor's Mansion and The Grove, a neighboring estate once owned by the Collins family.

Aurell is married to Jane Collins, daughter of the late governor and a member of a commission that oversees the mansion. The family sold the house and surrounding grounds to the state in 1985 but retained several nearby lots. Last year the family donated papers, furnishing and memorabilia valued at more than $400,000 to the state.

The original lawsuit against Scott and 15 other state officials was filed last year by lawyer Steven Andrews after the state interceded and claimed the right to buy lots owned by the Collins estate. Andrews has a law office on one of the lots and contract to buy the lot from the estate.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and other members of the Cabinet who make up the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund filed a separate suit against Aurell and the Collins estate. Andrews contends that the state formally waived the right to buy the land when Secretary of State Kurt Browning signed a statement saying the state did not want the property.

The state contends that only the governor and Cabinet could waive the right to purchase the land and voted last year to purchase it despite the estate's contract with Andrews.

The suit against Aurell alleges that he acted in bad faith when, as executor of the Collins estate, he agreed to sell the property to Andrews in 2010. Andrews contends that the state initially refused the opportunity to buy the property but changed direction when they learned that he was the potential buyer.

The judge did not determine who will get to buy the land, but directed lawyers to determine whether the state's offer of $580,000 was enough to adequately compensate Aurell. The state included a provision that would require Aurell to spend money cleaning up the property. Cooper said longstanding case law in this situation requires potential buyers to pay the owner an amount equal to the original offer. Forcing Aurell to spend money on the property could violate that requirement, he said.

Noting the mountain of paperwork filed in connection with the lawsuit and the bevy of lawyers in the courtroom, Cooper said he was trying to rule first on easily decided issues so he could narrow the focus of any trial that occurs.

He rejected claims that Cabinet aides violated the state's government in the sunshine law when they met and agreed to make the purchase, but said he'll allow the issue to be raised if Andrews can find evidence that Scott or other Cabinet members directed aides to make the decision.

Scott wants the vacant land to create a majestic entrance to the Governor's Mansion and The Grove, now a state owned museum. Andrews said the governor went after the property after he learned that Andrews obtained a copy of a deposition in which Scott claimed his Fifth Amendment rights against testifying 75 times. The lawsuit became an issue in Scott's 2010 campaign for governor.

Scott has denied any relationship between Andrews' past criticism of him and the purchase.

Governor's Mansion battle drags on in court 01/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 6:04pm]
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