TAMPA — As much as anyone since the 1998 opening of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich has endured the building's endless parade of problems.
Things always seem to be broken, leaking or closed for repairs at her 17th-floor office and courtroom.
This month alone, there have been these issues: Public restrooms are closed a week before a major trial. The thermostat is kept low to lessen mold. Still, the judge and others suffer physical reactions. Courtroom lights cannot be dimmed to see projected exhibits.
Of the building's landlord, the General Services Administration, Kovachevich bluntly said, "They don't care."
Interviews last week with Kovachevich and one of her law clerks provide a glimpse of the anger and frustration of those who work in the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse. The building is now undergoing $39 million in repairs and upgrades — nearly half the $85 million it cost to build the place.
And they call into question the GSA's insistence that mold and mildew problems have been eliminated.
Meanwhile, the general contractor that built the courthouse says it previously offered to work with the GSA to address repairs but was rebuffed by the agency.
"This is an unending nightmare," said Kovachevich, former chief judge of the Middle District of Florida. "It will not stop. We've lost functional capability. I'm not talking aesthetics. I just want things to work so I can function as a U.S. District Court judge."
A Jan. 22 St. Petersburg Times story noted costly repairs are now under way to fix leaky windows or window frames that judges say were installed backward.
Every window in the 17-floor building must be reset.
Workers repairing windows soon noticed insulation to prevent fire and smoke from spreading between floors was missing in places, a $3.5 million fix.
"Every step forward, they run into obstacles they did not expect," Kovachevich said. "Alterations and repairs have to be made over and over and over again after they say it's all done."
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A GSA spokesman said Friday mold and mildew problems that had plagued the courthouse for years and caused illness have been eliminated. The GSA has not received complaints of illness in the last six months, a spokesman said.
"Once the moisture intrusion has been stopped and (repairs) completed, the moisture necessary for mold growth is no longer present and the mold is unable to form," the GSA said in a statement.
Sherrill Newton, Kovachevich's senior law clerk, doesn't buy it.
"I was very surprised to hear that we are all healthy and healed now," said Newton. Both she and Kovachevich say they still have physical reactions they believe are tied to mold and mildew.
Kovachevich said she occasionally suffers an allergic reaction to mold causing headaches and a skin breakout. Her last reaction came in December.
"The mold grows in the office," she said. "They try to wipe it off, but it still grows."
Newton said a doctor has linked her physical reactions to the building. She said she suffers coughs, sneezing fits, eye irritation and even nosebleeds that occur only in the building.
Newton said symptoms used to abate when she left work for a few days. But now, they seem to be with her constantly. She can't leave her job to seek relief.
"I've got 24 years in," Newton said. "Do I end my career over my health?"
The GSA has been accused of lax oversight of construction, but it places much of the blame on the Clark Construction Group.
Of the leaky windows, the GSA said it "has concluded the majority of the problems are the result of poor workmanship and fabrication."
The GSA said, "It is important to note that while GSA provided a site presence, the primary responsibility for quality control and assurance lies with the general contractor."
Clark officials say they are not to blame. The architect and the GSA conducted numerous inspections during construction and accepted the building for occupancy, the company said.
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Sid Jordan, chief of Clark's northern and southern divisions, said in a statement Saturday that Clark offered to jointly retain an independent engineering firm with the GSA to inspect the building and develop a repair plan.
But Jordan said the GSA proceeded without Clark's help. GSA officials could not be reached to comment on that issue.
"As a result, Clark was not given an opportunity to observe the work as it went forward, and therefore we are unaware of what GSA found," Jordan said.
What makes repairs especially hard to stomach for those who work in the building is the fact that the judiciary pays $5.3 million a year in rent to the GSA.
The GSA also insists the windows are defective, but not installed backward. Baloney, said Kovachevich.
She recalled GSA regional administrator Ed Fielder telling court officials in a meeting about 10 years ago windows were installed backward. Fielder did not return calls seeking comment.
"That's the terminology they used," the judge said. "I'm sure he'd remember. It's not something that happens every day in the construction business."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.