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No grand jury inquiry of 'Taj Mahal' courthouse, but plenty of political fallout

Funding for the 1st District Court of Appeal building was slipped through in the final days of the 2007 legislative session.

Times files

Funding for the 1st District Court of Appeal building was slipped through in the final days of the 2007 legislative session.

TALLAHASSEE — A grand jury decided Wednesday not to investigate the so-called Taj Mahal state appellate court house, which has become a symbol of excessive spending in the midst of a budget crisis.

Aside from its eye-popping $48 million cost and lavish accoutrements for 1st District Court of Appeal judges, the courthouse is a poster child for the shadowy world of legislative horse trading involving top lawmakers, including Gov. Charlie Crist.

But Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs said the grand jury didn't think there was a crime behind it all.

"There are probably some things that probably shouldn't have happened. But they did call it a courthouse," Meggs said, a passing reference to the hidden nature of a $6 million jet hangar linked to former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

Meggs has charged Sansom with grand theft over allegedly slipping the line item into the 2007 budget — when he was House budget chief — to help a friend and contributor. Sansom has pleaded not guilty.

Sansom also was linked to the Taj Mahal courthouse in 2007 budget documents obtained by the Times/Herald. The courthouse money was slipped into the budget and a transportation bill in the waning days of the session in 2007.

Sansom last week said that he knew nothing of the courthouse and said it was a priority of then-House Speaker Rubio, who denied the claim and said it "was not something I worked on as speaker."

Rubio pointed out that the courthouse was no secret. And Meggs agreed.

"In Sansom's case the Department of Education didn't know they were building a hangar for a college that had no airplanes and no aeronautical program," Meggs said. "In this case, everybody knew they were building a courthouse."

Despite Rubio's contention that it was not something he worked on as speaker, an e-mail circulated among the judges on the courthouse building committee that identifies him as one of the "heroes" who was "especially helpful" in obtaining the money to build it.

And now Crist, an opponent of Rubio's in the Senate race, has suggested that the building was a surprise.

"Slipping something like that into the budget — you know, secretly, essentially — is always wrong," Crist told WTVT-Ch. 13 in Tampa. "It's never appropriate."

But Crist's office saw the appropriation in 2007 and never raised an objection. His internal records from the Office of Policy & Budget show that the item was linked to Sansom.

The document, nicknamed the "turkey list," explicitly notes a $250,000 appropriation linked to an initial $33.5 million expenditure for the 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse in HB 985, a transportation-related bill.

Crist didn't veto the budget items associated with the courthouse.

He also signed the transportation bill, which listed the courthouse in its summary. The courthouse language was added in the waning days of the session by a Crist ally and friend, Tampa Sen. Victor Crist, who is no relation to the governor.

Now, though, Gov. Crist has started to raise questions about the way the deal went down.

"It's pretty conclusive that, if there's something for the judicial branch that comes in under the Department of Transportation, that's not exactly the most transparent place to put it," Crist said Tuesday.

But Crist wasn't done supporting the project — or at least not objecting to it — when he signed the transportation bill.

On Aug. 12, 2008, he voted for the bond for the courthouse at the State Board of Administration. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum moved to approve it. Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson seconded the motion. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is now launching an inquiry, seems to have gone along. Call that approval number three.

Said Crist: "Moved and seconded. Show it approved without objection."

No grand jury inquiry of 'Taj Mahal' courthouse, but plenty of political fallout 09/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 7:01am]
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