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JQC brings charges against 'Taj Mahal' Judge Paul M. Hawkes

TALLAHASSEE — The appellate judge who orchestrated the construction of the elaborate "Taj Mahal" courthouse was charged Tuesday with abusing his authority as a judge, destroying public records and conduct that demonstrates he is unfit to hold office.

The charges against 1st District Court Judge Paul M. Hawkes were leveled by the Judicial Qualifications Commission after an investigation that focused on his push for a new $50-million courthouse in the midst of a budget crisis.

Hawkes' conduct and behavior "demonstrated a pattern of conduct that can only be characterized as intemperate, impatient, undignified and discourteous,'' the JQC alleged. That conduct has "brought the entire judiciary of the state of Florida into disrepute, has inflicted substantial harm upon the entire state court system and has therefore demeaned the entire court system of the state of Florida.''

In an 11-page notice filed Tuesday with the Florida Supreme Court, the commission centered its scathing accusations on Hawkes' conduct toward others at the court and toward state officials involved in overseeing construction of the courthouse in Tallahassee, which was completed in December. Many have dubbed the lavish building a "Taj Mahal.''

The accusations against Hawkes include:

• Forcing the removal of a state employee who questioned the project and destroying documents relating to the cost of the new courthouse as well as documents relating to the selection of the architect and contractor.

• Attempting to get a furniture vendor to provide a free trip to Indiana and Kentucky that would include a day at Churchill Downs racetrack for himself, his brother and a son. He is also accused of attempting to intimidate the court's marshal after he questioned the trip, lying about the planned trip and shutting down the business relationship between the court, the furniture vendor and retailer, Executive Office Furniture of Tallahassee, after the trip was vetoed by the court's chief judge.

• Using a court employee in 2006 to help his son, Jeremiah, who was general counsel for House Speaker Marco Rubio, write a legal brief in an appeal of a lawsuit filed over legal fees charged by lawyers defending death row inmates. Lawmakers were attempting to limit fees that could be paid to death row lawyers. After Hawkes' own court referred the case to the Supreme Court, the judge used his law clerk, Renee Hill, to help his son prepare a brief for the higher court. In September 2008 the Supreme Court allowed the payment of higher fees in cases involving extraordinary circumstances, thus overruling the Legislature. Jeremiah Hawkes now works for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

• Using a "coercive and intimidating leadership style'' with the court's marshal and others, trying to force one court employee to perform personal errands such as buying vinegar to clean his personal coffee pot and usurping the budget duties of several court employees.

Many of the charges involve questions raised by the St. Petersburg Times in a series of articles published last year. The charges were filed by F. Wallace Pope Jr., a Clearwater lawyer retained as a special prosecutor by the JQC.

Hawkes, 54, a former Citrus County legislator appointed to the court by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, did not immediately respond to questions about the charges.

His lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Ken Sukhia, said, "Judge Hawkes was at all times acting in what he firmly believed to be the best interests of the state, the judiciary and the court on which he serves. We are preparing a vigorous defense against all charges.''

Sukhia said allegations that Hawkes destroyed records are not true. The records mentioned by the commission were just copies of old records, not the originals which remain in the files.

Judge Robert Benton, chief judge at the 1st DCA, would not discuss the charges, noting that Hawkes remains a judge on the court "until and unless the Supreme Court orders otherwise.''

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady forced Hawkes to resign as chief judge in November 2010 after state auditors questioned the legality of the way he and other judges at the 1st DCA handled the new courthouse.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, said Hawkes should immediately resign. Fasano chairs the Senate committee that controls the court system's budget. Earlier this year he summoned Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas, another judge at the court who helped lobby for the new building, to testify before his committee. Afterward Fasano accused both judges of being less than candid.

The commission alleges Hawkes failed to act with "patience, dignity and courteousness'' expected of judges and mistreated employees at the Department of Management Services, the agency charged with supervising the courthouse construction project. Several employees told commission investigators that they felt Hawkes was "beating up on them.'' After the project director raised legitimate concerns about the cost of the project and the lavish appearance of the building, Hawkes had him removed from the project.

When DMS officials suggested the project was exceeding the budget, Hawkes "brushed them off,'' saying he would simply return to the Legislature and obtain more money.

When Don Brannon, longtime marshal at the court, questioned lavish furniture purchases for the new building and refused to lie about the proposed Indiana trip, Hawkes "froze him out'' of budget decisions, "isolated and humiliated him'' and caused him to retire short of the day he would have gained optimum retirement benefits, the commission charged.

When court employees failed to yield to his coercion, Hawkes "barked'' at them and used his position as chief judge to block pay raises for some, according to the charges.

Hawkes took over the budgetmaking process after Brannon resigned and misled his fellow judges about financial decisions with attempts to "doctor the budget by omitting information from it,'' the commission charged.

After Brannon retired, Hawkes forced a deputy marshal to destroy an entire file cabinet filled with budget documents and information pertaining to the construction of the new courthouse, the charges state.

Hawkes has 20 days to respond to the accusations and will likely face trial before the commission later this year. The commission will make a written recommendation to the Supreme Court that could lead to his reprimand, fine, suspension or removal from office.

JQC brings charges against 'Taj Mahal' Judge Paul M. Hawkes 05/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 11:10am]
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