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Getting the picture of court's big unpaid bill

Aside from the state's taxpayers and the reputation of our court system, one of the biggest victims of a posh new courthouse that many have dubbed a "Taj Mahal'' is a small art gallery in Tallahassee.

Mary Maida, owner of Signature Gallery, surely thought she could trust a group of judges who selected historical photographs they wanted to frame and hang in the new 1st District Court of Appeal.

Led by former judge, now magistrate, Charles Kahn and Judge Paul M. Hawkes, a court committee personally picked out some 400 photographs they wanted to enlarge and frame for hallways and offices throughout the $50 million building. The photos included historic scenes from North Florida: churches, courthouses, watermelon festivals, greased pig contests and the like.

They got the idea from legislators who have spent thousands of dollars framing and hanging historic photos all over the Capitol. Hawkes has been charged with conduct unbecoming a judge in connection with the new building, but the charges don't address the pricey photographs.

Maida carefully printed, enlarged and framed photos and had them ready to hang long before the building was completed last December.

The photographs remain in storage, awaiting the day the state may actually pay its debt to Maida. With the help of her husband, Tom Maida, a lawyer at Foley & Lardner in Tallahassee, Mary Maida has filed suit against the state in an effort to collect the $357,000 debt.

That's a big debt for a small art gallery caught in the midst of a very bad economy.

The trouble for Maida began when former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink refused to make an initial payment for the work because the cost far exceeded the amount of money any state agency can spend for artwork on a new building. The judges had already ordered up some $100,000 worth of original paintings for the building in addition to the photos.

State law sets that limit at $100,000. The judges have questioned whether the photographs should be considered "art'' but have done nothing to pony up the money to pay the bill.

It's a ridiculous situation. If a vendor can't trust a group of judges to see that the bills are paid when they buy things, whom can we trust?

Maida filed suit against the Division of Management Services, the state agency responsible for construction of the new courthouse. Tallahassee Circuit Judge Charles Francis recently took the unusual step of directing Maida to include the builder, Peter G. Brown Construction, and the chief finance officer responsible for paying the state's bills as defendants in the suit.

Maida has refiled the suit at the judge's suggestion. It's already been a year since she completed work on the photos. Someday, after lawyers for both sides quit jockeying around, the state is likely to face payment of the bill plus interest, costs of storage and attorney's fees.

Taxpayers will once again be on the losing end.

If there is to be any justice in all of this, the court ought to find a way to make the judges pay. They are the ones who ordered the photographs despite a law that limited what they could spend.

Ignorance of that law, after all, is not an excuse acceptable in any courtroom.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Getting the picture of court's big unpaid bill 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 4:30am]
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