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Florida CFO rejects bills for furniture, photos at 'Taj Mahal' courthouse

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's taxpayers will not pay all of the bills for furnishing the posh new 1st District Court of Appeal building, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said.

In letters to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon released Thursday, Atwater said he has refused to pay $357,000 for framed photographs ordered by judges at the court and an additional $18,647 pledged for building and refinishing furniture.

The court was trying to pay the two bills out of money raised from a $35.5 million bond issue, which cannot be legally spent for furnishings. And the court had already spent the $100,000 maximum allowed by law for artwork at the new building, Atwater noted.

The decision leaves Signature Gallery, a small business in Tallahassee, with a big unpaid bill and about 400 framed historical photos of watermelon festivals, tobacco farms, lighthouses, greased pig contests and dozens of other North Florida places. The photos and frames were selected by the judges after they saw similar photos posted in legislative halls.

Mary Maida, owner of the gallery, and her husband Tom, a lawyer with Foley & Lardner in Tallahassee, have been trying to negotiate payment with state officials. The state's decision to reject the bill is likely to spark a lawsuit.

Atwater told legislative leaders he has been "gravely disappointed and shocked by the lack of stewardship" over taxpayer funds shown by the judges at the court and the State Department of Management Services, the agency that oversees construction of state buildings.

The project suffered from an assortment of mismanagement issues, including the lack of competitive bids and appropriate management as well as "inappropriate influence from certain First DCA judges," Atwater noted.

Lax oversight by officials at DMS and "improper behavior by the judges led to high construction costs and extravagant furnishings, all of which I consider to be an unconscionable waste of taxpayer funds," Atwater said in his letter to lawmakers.

The new $50 million courthouse, dubbed a "Taj Mahal" by its critics, includes miles of mahogany, granite workstations for judicial assistants, kitchens and bathrooms for each of the 15 judges and an extravagant use of space "far grander than that occupied by the Florida Supreme Court," Atwater said.

In a separate letter to Jack Miles, newly appointed secretary at DMS, Atwater criticized the agency's attempts to seek payment for questionable goods and services without adequate documentation.

The state's taxpayers will be picking up the $17,364 tab charged by Black Box Network Services of Fort Myers as a "restocking fee" for the return of sixteen 60-inch television sets originally ordered for each judge's office.

The televisions were returned in August 2010 after the St. Petersburg Times included them on a list of extraordinary items the judges were buying for the new courthouse.

Officials at DMS originally included the restocking fee on a bill for "labor" furnished by Black Box. Officials at DMS said the billing was done in error.

Florida CFO rejects bills for furniture, photos at 'Taj Mahal' courthouse 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 10:01pm]
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