TAMPA — Sen. Bill Nelson said he isn't pleased that some employees on the upper floors of the 17-story federal courthouse in downtown Tampa are still sickened by mold or some unknown agent.
So he gave the building's landlord, the General Services Administration, an ultimatum.
"I told them they better get this fixed fast or else I'm going to call for them to vacate the top seven floors of the building," said Nelson, D-Fla. "And somebody's going to be responsible paying for that other than taxpayers."
Now the GSA is planning an investigation to see if air-conditioning ducts in the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse carry mold or an unknown agent that could explain illness reported by some court employees, a judge in the building said Thursday.
"We've got symptoms," said Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, former chief judge of the Middle District of Florida, which includes the Tampa Bay area. "That's the effect. We don't know the cause. It's like a detective story."
But Kovachevich said it isn't just the top floors of the courthouse where workers experience symptoms. It's throughout the building, she said.
News of the GSA investigation comes after Nelson met in his Washington office this week with David Foley, the GSA's deputy commissioner of public buildings service, to discuss the courthouse's perpetually leaking windows and reports of health problems.
Nelson called the meeting after recent St. Petersburg Times stories noted the $85 million building is undergoing the most costly repairs and upgrades in its 13-year history — nearly $39 million in all.
Problems include missing fire insulation and windows installed incorrectly, directing water into rather than out of the building.
The Times also reported that Judge Kovachevich and her senior law clerk still suffer physical reactions they believe are tied to something in the building. Symptoms include nosebleeds, skin rashes and coughing.
Nelson said the GSA could not answer some basic questions at this week's meeting. Did the agency investigate if air-conditioning ducts are spreading mold and mildew? Has the statute of limitations run out on the government taking legal action against the general contractor that built the structure?
Kovachevich recounted her symptoms and those of her law clerk at the meeting via phone. She noted how she once had to recess a trial after she suffered a reaction on the bench.
Nelson said the GSA may have made a good-faith effort to fix continued problems, but he is nonetheless angered about reports of illness that persist years after they first surfaced.
In fact, Nelson visited the courthouse in 2009 to get a first-hand look at problems, and Nelson said he suffered his own physical reaction during a tour of the building. He said he thought the GSA had long ago fixed the problem.
"This is inexcusable," Nelson said. "It's inexcusable the way GSA has handled it. It's inexcusable that the contractor's construction was so poor. GSA needs to get back for taxpayers the money being spent to fix these problems."
A GSA spokesman did not respond to questions about the meeting, and Anne Conway, chief judge of the Middle District of Florida, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The courthouse's general contractor, Clark Construction Group, maintains it is not to blame for building problems and notes the GSA and architect signed off on the building and accepted it for occupancy.
Clark has said it had previously made an offer to the GSA to hire an independent engineer to inspect the building and come up with a repair plan. But Clark said the GSA rebuffed the offer.
"As a result, Clark was not given an opportunity to observe the work as it went forward, and therefore we are unaware of what GSA found," Sid Jordan, chief of Clark's northern and southern divisions, said last week.
Nelson said he told GSA leaders to quickly report back to him on the questions they were unable to answer this week.
"You just can't have federal employees getting sick," Nelson said. "I think GSA is trying to be helpful. But they haven't solved the problem."
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.