Six appeals filed in 'Taj Mahal' art case

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court has assigned the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach to hear appeals in a squabble over an unpaid $357,000 bill for framed photos ordered for the new 1st District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee.

Six interlocutory appeals have been filed in a heavily lawyered civil suit filed by Signature Gallery, a small Tallahassee business that contracted with Peter R. Brown Construction to frame and hang 369 historic photographs in the halls of the new courthouse. Chief Judge Robert Benton asked the high court to send the cases to a panel of judges who do not have offices in the new courthouse.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his predecessor Alex Sink refused to pay the bill, saying no money was appropriated by the Legislature that could legally be spent on photos. They have also questioned whether the photos should be considered art. Under state law expenditures for art cannot legally exceed $100,000 and the court has already spent about $150,000 on oil paintings and other framed photos for the grandiose courthouse building.

The state agency that oversees construction of new buildings approved the gallery contract and payment of the bill, saying the framed photographs were to be permanently installed instead of wall coverings. That could make the photos "fixtures'' which could be legally purchased with fixed capital outlay funds.

Lawyers for Signature Gallery contend Atwater has exceeded his authority by refusing to pay.

Dubbed by many as a "Taj Mahal," the courthouse has miles of African mahogany, granite countertops and desks.

Some plans were curtailed in 2010 after the Tampa Bay Times published stories describing the way judges at the court lobbied state lawmakers to slip a $35 million bond issue into a lengthy transportation bill in the closing hours of the 2007 legislative session. The court's chief judge, Paul M. Hawkes, resigned after being charged with misconduct, and the walls where photos were to hang are mostly bare awaiting the outcome of the court fight.

A nonjury trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 17 before Leon Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis. On Tuesday, Francis rejected Atwater's effort to avoid testifying in the case and said he must answer questions under oath. That decision has sparked the latest appeal as lawyers for the state's chief financial officer ask the court to overrule the judge.

A spokeswoman for Atwater did not respond to questions about his refusal to testify. Lawyers say he is a constitutional officer and cannot be drawn into the fray. Lawyers for the contractor say he should answer questions about his motives for rejecting the bill.

More than a dozen lawyers representing seven state agencies and businesses have been drawn into the court battle, which taxpayers could pay for if the gallery wins. Mary Maida, owner of the gallery is being represented by her husband, Tom, and other lawyers at the Foley & Lardner firm in Tallahassee.

Six appeals filed in 'Taj Mahal' art case 11/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 9:26pm]

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