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'Taj Mahal' judges, officials invited to testify before Senate committee

TALLAHASSEE — Two judges and other officials who participated in the planning of the new 1st District Court of Appeal building have been invited to explain the lavish courthouse at a state Senate committee meeting in January.

Opened this week, the building has been labeled the "Taj Mahal'' by critics who say its African mahogany, granite surfaces, bathrooms and kitchens for every judge are over the top for a government project built during a recession.

Sen. Mike Fasano, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, sent invitations late Tuesday to Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas; Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South; and State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner. The New Port Richey Republican said he also plans to invite the construction manager from Peter G. Brown Inc., which managed the contract.

Hawkes and Thomas, both former legislative staffers who also worked on Gov. Jeb Bush's budget staff, led a lobbying campaign over several years to raise money for the $48.8 million project. The bulk of the money came from a $33.5 million bond issue authorized in a transportation bill on the final day of the 2007 legislative session.

Fasano toured the building earlier this month and was "disgusted'' with the abuse of taxpayer funds. He said he wants to hear testimony that might help legislators prevent a repeat. Fasano has also suggested giving the structure to the Florida Supreme Court or forcing the district court to share office space with the court system's administrative staff, now housed in rental quarters at a cost of about $300,000 a year.

Hawkes, in an e-mail, had no comment except to say "thank you'' after a St. Petersburg Times reporter shared Fasano's letter. Thomas did not respond to a request for comment.

South, who hadn't seen the letter, said she doesn't plan to be in Tallahassee in January and won't attend the meeting. She was appointed to head the agency that serves as the state's landlord by Gov. Charlie Crist and will leave office next month.

'Taj Mahal' judges, officials invited to testify before Senate committee 12/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 8:38pm]
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