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Public airing of "Taj Mahal" courthouse costs set

TALLAHASSEE — The state agency in charge of building a new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal is being asked to produce proof of expenditures in public meetings.

In a letter mailed Monday, Chief Finance Officer Jeff Atwater — the man responsible for paying all the state's bills — said has "serious concerns and suspicions regarding the legitimacy of expenses" associated with the new courthouse, dubbed by critics Florida's "Taj Mahal."

Atwater's staff has already returned improperly supported invoices for expenditures totaling more than $700,000, and he says he wants officials at the Department of Management Services — the agency responsible for building the courthouse — to send a staffer with knowledge of the details in all vouchers to attend a public meeting at the Capitol on Jan. 20 to explain.

Atwater also says he'll take up any further requests for payments associated with the project in a public setting so Floridians will know how the state is spending their money.

Atwater said he reached his decision after the DMS repeatedly failed to provide adequate explanation and details of goods being purchased for the building.

On Wednesday, Atwater's staff will be available along with others to answer questions at a Senate Committee meeting where lawmakers are trying to determine how the appellate court managed to build a posh building in the midst of drastic budget cuts, layoffs and cutbacks in every area of the state's budget.

Senate committee Chairman Mike Fasano has invited 1st DCA Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas to appear along with officials from the DMS and others who helped with the project. Thomas told the committee late last week that he would not attend the meeting, but Fasano said Monday Supreme Court Chief Judge Charles Canady has called saying Thomas will after all be available to testify.

Atwater's office is questioning a number of purchases, including 27 flat-screen televisions, The court was paying $5,978 for 60-inch televisions, $2,273 for 47-inch televisions and $3,325 for 52-inch televisions, far more than the price of similar-sized TVs at major electronic stores.

Court officials say all of the bills for the television sets have been handled by the DMS, not the judges. A spokesman for the DMS said the agency has Atwater's letter and is reviewing it, but had no further comment.

Public airing of "Taj Mahal" courthouse costs set 01/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 10:46pm]
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