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Sink's audit of 'Taj Mahal' courthouse goes to Judicial Qualifications Commission

TALLAHASSEE — A scathing audit that accuses 1st District Court of Appeal judges of bullying state officials in order to build a lavish, mahogany-paneled courthouse has been sent to the state judicial disciplinary board.

The report, made public Tuesday by state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, will go to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which can recommend the discipline or removal of judges.

''This first DCA project was the perfect storm: a lack of appropriate oversight, abdication of responsibility by the Department of Management Services, no bid contracting and conflicts of interest,'' Sink said Tuesday as she made public an audit of the new, $48 million courthouse that has been dubbed the "Taj Mahal'' by critics.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady said Tuesday he takes "the issues raised in this report very seriously,'' Canady said he is sending Sink's audit to the JQC without further comment since it will be up to his court to review any allegations brought against the judges.

At her news conference, Sink called on Canady and Gov. Charlie Crist to deal with problems her auditors found in the way the DCA and the state Department of Management Services handled the courthouse construction project, which is nearing completion at Southwood, about 6 miles east of the state capitol.

Auditors say DMS lost control of the project, failed to seek bids as required by law and failed to set a maximum price for the project until a year after construction had begun and $6-million had already been spent.

Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor, ordered the audit in August after the St. Petersburg Times questioned the spending of taxpayer dollars on a project that included 60-inch television screens, granite countertops, miles of mahogany trim and bathrooms and kitchens for every judge.

Sink held up a piece of the building's mahogany trim noting that auditors discovered that the state paid for enough of the imported African wood to stretch 20 miles.

Canady said the Supreme Court will thoroughly review the audit and has asked the Court's inspector general to assist.

"We will take whatever appropriate action is required, including making any necessary internal reforms to ensure that the public's money is spent wisely,'' he said.

The building cost millions more in taxpayer dollars than was necessary, Sink said Tuesday. Auditors found 17 instances in which DMS or the judges skirted state law, rules or acceptable internal accounting practices, she said.

There are laws in place to prevent "a travesty'' such as this, she said, but the laws were "purposefully circumvented.''

DMS, a state agency that reports to the governor, lost control of the project it was supposed to supervise, she said. Instead of properly supervising construction and costs of the $48-million building, Sink said DMS failed to seek competitive bids on the project and began construction without establishing a guaranteed maximum price. The project was initially expected to cost about $33-million.

The agency abdicated its responsibility, handing it over to the judges and "leaving the design and cost control up to their overindulgent friends,'' she said.

Sink noted that a building for the Department of Revenue completed recently cost 225 per square foot while the new courthouse will cost about $425 a square foot. DMS's actions raise questions of judgment and "potential ethical considerations,'' Sink said.

She also questioned decisions by the judges to make two trips to see the Michigan Supreme Court building, one paid for by the state and the other at the expense of the contractor, who paid about $12,000 to charter a jet for the judges and was not reimbursed by the judges. The building was patterned after the Michigan courthouse.

"What stands out to me is the appalling lack of leadership by the responsible parties,'' she said.

Sink singled out 1st DCA Chief Judge Paul M. Hawkes for his aggressive lobbying, calling it an outrageous example of an over-active judge who not only lobbied the Legislature for the money, but took over as a personal contract manager for a 110,000 square foot building that will house about 120 state employes.

Hawkes did not respond to a request for comment.

Sink said she will not pay some of the bills, including $190,000 for art that was listed as "wall covering,'' just a portion of the $357,000 in artwork the court has ordered. State law limits expenditures for art in public buildings to $100,000.

Sink says she was not legally able to reject many of the expenses because Florida law prevents her from refusing to pay bills when the Legislature had approved spending the money.

Sink, expecting criticism from her opponent in the governor's race, said her authority is limited because auditors found no illegal payments made in connection with the building. Similarly, the power of the Cabinet was limited legally in the situation, she said.

A spokesman for Crist said the governor is looking at the audit, but has yet to determine what steps he'll take.

Sink's audit of 'Taj Mahal' courthouse goes to Judicial Qualifications Commission 10/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 7:24am]
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