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Conditions at Tampa's federal courthouse upset Sen. Nelson

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich helps U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson get a look at some of the water damage and structural problems at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse in Tampa.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich helps U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson get a look at some of the water damage and structural problems at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse in Tampa.

TAMPA — It took about 30 minutes Monday for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to begin feeling the effects of the "sick" federal courthouse building downtown that has caused numerous health problems since it opened just over a decade ago.

"I'm beginning to clog up," he said, his voice noticeably strained after touring the building to see mildew and mold growing on window seals and buckets placed strategically to catch rain leaks. "This is totally unacceptable."

Nelson called the lack of response to permanently fix the problems "bordering on criminal activity." He's holding the building's original contractor, Clark Construction Group LLC, responsible.

"I'm going to absolutely raise Cain," Nelson said. "I'm going to stay on their doorstep."

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, chief judge at the Tampa courthouse, knows first-hand the problems that persist inside the building. Kovachevich, whose courtroom is at the top of the 17-story building, has had to take breaks during trials when she feels a reaction to the mold.

"If I can't function, I can't be a U.S. district judge," she said.

She joked Monday that she works in a "green building," while pointing to visible patches of mold, but thanked Nelson for looking into a serious matter she said affects hundreds of employees and visitors to the courthouse every day.

And like Nelson, Kovachevich showed signs Monday of being in a "sick" building.

Kovachevich pointed to the redness in her cheeks, a symptom, she said, of an allergic reaction after a brief exposure to some of the mold. She warns jurors to bring jackets and blankets when in her courtroom, because she often keeps the thermostat set to 55 degrees to tolerate the conditions.

"I've had to come off the bench and set it as a refrigerator . . . just to make it livable," Kovachevich said.

Nelson wants the General Services Administration, which oversees federal buildings, to explain why maintenance work on the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse has yet to be completed.

An executive with Clark Construction didn't return a call Monday seeking comment.

Completed for $64.5 million in 1997, the courthouse opened months late and millions over budget. Broken pipes, a leaky roof and too-low benches caused costly hiccups. Then a health inspection found workers there had high rates of respiratory illness, adult onset asthma and "sick building syndrome," the St. Petersburg Times reported. Another million went into fixing top-floor windows in 2006. Now, it seems, repairs to the building have stalled.

A spokesman for the senator's office said Nelson called on the GSA last year not to go easy on the building's "shoddy workmanship," which he says has allowed mold and diesel fumes to beset the 363,000-square-foot glass and limestone facility.

Times photographer Stephen J. Coddington contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Conditions at Tampa's federal courthouse upset Sen. Nelson 02/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 10:46pm]

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