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Whose fault is the Taj courthouse?

It is perhaps fitting that the controversial courthouse was built on land where the late Ed Ball’s cows once grazed. Though Ball was never elected to office, there was no bigger player on Florida’s political field for more than 40 years.

Times files

It is perhaps fitting that the controversial courthouse was built on land where the late Ed Ball’s cows once grazed. Though Ball was never elected to office, there was no bigger player on Florida’s political field for more than 40 years.

TALLAHASSEE

So whom do we blame? We now have a $50 million courthouse everyone calls the Taj Mahal, and lots of folks want to find someone to blame.

It is 110,000 square feet of mahogany, granite and greed rising out of a former pasture where Ed Ball's cows once grazed. Somewhere Ed Ball is smiling. It is just the kind of caper he would have loved.

If you are new here, you might not recognize Ball's name. He died in 1981 after decades of controlling Florida politicians. Never elected to office, Ball ran the businesses owned by his brother-in-law, Alfred I. duPont, including the St. Joe Paper Co. For more than 40 years, there was no bigger player on Florida's political field.

There is lots of blame in this deal to go around. And almost everyone has an excuse.

First, let's look at the Capitol press corps. We need to share some of the blame. None of us found the hidden little nugget inside a 142-page transportation bill, a paragraph authorizing a $33.5 million bond issue to build a new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal. Sen. Victor Crist put it there in the waning hours of a chaotic 2007 legislative session when other budgets were being slashed. The courthouse construction project was briefly mentioned in each house as a way to fix a budget glitch.

From long experience we should have known that use of the word "glitch'' can be a signal of something nefarious. But in the chaotic final hours of session, it passed unnoticed by reporters.

The only visible sign of the courthouse was a $7.9 million appropriation for expansion, and it was reported in several newspapers. Most of us knew the court needed space and would build something, but few realized they were getting so much money at one time or that they would spend it so unwisely.

Other possible watchdogs failed to catch it as well. Florida TaxWatch, the group that touts its skill at finding little hidden spending nuggets, remained silent. Those who did catch it and try to stop it, primarily the Florida Supreme Court, merely called the governor to beg for a veto but didn't raise a stink.

The budget staff in Gov. Charlie Crist's office focused primarily on the transportation issues in the bill but noted the presence of the bond issue in a few internal e-mails, saying "so much for the single subject rule.'' That is an oft-violated legislative rule that requires bills to address one subject. No one in the governor's budget office suggested it should trigger a veto.

The governor did not veto the bill and didn't even recall being asked to veto it when questioned about it three years later. Judge Fred Lewis, then the chief judge at the Supreme Court, says he asked for the veto after belatedly discovering the presence of the bond issue.

Gov. Crist (no relation to the senator) also left the $7.9 million appropriation in the budget.

Victor Crist says he was just following orders issued by Senate President Ken Pruitt. Others say Crist was eager to help his longtime friend and former aide, Judge Brad Thomas. Pruitt says he doesn't recall helping the court.

(Victor Crist and Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, were so helpful that the judges were going to put their name on the building but something has happened to the nice bronze plaque they had made. It's still not up on the building and no one seems to know what will happen to it.)

You could also blame the senators and House members who voted for the bill. Only two in the Senate voted against it — Sens. Alex Villalobos and Rudy Garcia, both Miami Republicans. And they were voting against other items in the transportation bill. They didn't notice the bond issue.

The bill was really a bundle of 22 bills — a "train,'' a last-minute maneuver used by legislative leaders at the end of almost every session. Such bills frequently link unpopular items with "must pass'' issues and barrel through the Legislature on the final day. It is so common that some legislators automatically vote no without even knowing what's in the bill because they rarely contain anything kin to good government.

When the bill (House Bill 985) traveled back to the House, only Rep. Matt Meadows, D-Fort Lauderdale, questioned the presence of a multimillion-dollar bond issue that had never been considered in committee. No one answered.

By then it was clear that this bill and its contents had the approval of House Speaker Marco Rubio and Pruitt. Lawmakers oppose leadership at their peril and rarely kill such bills. So the House approved it 68-49 with most of the opposition coming from members who didn't like a controversial transportation measure in the bill. Rubio initially said he couldn't recall the bond issue and later said he had no idea that the judges would build such a lavish courthouse.

Few lawmakers even knew the courthouse bond issue was there, and even fewer would remember it when the St. Petersburg Times started asking questions in 2010. Call it an amnesia of convenience.

The governor and Cabinet share some of the blame. They agreed to sell the bonds in 2008, clearing the way for construction to proceed. Chief Finance Officer Alex Sink paid the bills as they came in, only pausing after the St. Petersburg Times wrote about the palace they were building. She was the first to do anything — she ordered an audit and refused to pay some of the bills.

Blame the judges too — not just the ones who were lobbying the Legislature.

Judges Paul Hawkes and Brad Thomas, both former legislative staffers, were frequent flyers in legislative halls for years after they were appointed to the bench by Gov. Jeb Bush. Legislators often wondered how judges who spent so much time in the Capitol had time to hear cases.

Hawkes, a former legislator who had worked in the House and on the governor's budget staff, knew the process well and knew the members too. He and House Speaker Marco Rubio were friends. And Hawkes' son, Jeremiah, was Rubio's general counsel. His former aide and business partner, Richard Corcoran, had been Rubio's chief of staff. (Now Corcoran is a member of the House from Pasco County). Hawkes was also close to officials at St. Joe, developer of Southwood where the building would be erected. And he bought a house at Southwood two years before they got the money for the building.

Thomas, a former prosecutor for State Attorney Willie Meggs, worked on the staff of the House, Senate and governor at various times over the years. He too knew the process and the people. He had been staff director for Victor Crist and was an attendant in Crist's 2005 wedding.

There was also Judge James Wolf, a veteran judge who once lobbied for the Florida League of Cities and knew his way around city permitting officials. He helped get the permits once Hawkes and Thomas got the money. And he suggested they go over the heads of planning officials and get help from the mayor and city commission if they ran into trouble.

And then there were the other judges. Twelve other judges. They could have outvoted the trio that was pushing the courthouse but didn't. Three other judges were on the building committee: then-Chief Judge Edwin B. Browning Jr., Charles Kahn Jr. and Robert Benton. Only Browning tried to stop some of the excess. And none of them ever publicly questioned what was going on.

Two of the judges — Wolf and Kahn — have been outspoken in their support of Hawkes, Thomas and the new courthouse.

And if you'd like proof they knew exactly what they were doing look no further than their decision to cancel a ground-breaking ceremony planned for November 2008 as budget cutting escalated. They didn't want to call attention to the new building.

Browning didn't like the idea of individual bathrooms for each judge, but was out voted by the others. He also raised serious questions about the free trip to Michigan some of the judges accepted from the construction manager in 2008. And when Browning left the court in January 2009, all those granite countertops, miles of mahogany, kitchens for every judge, etched glass and other luxuries poured into the plan.

Those at the Department of Management Services who tried to stop the judges from building something far too grandiose either lost their jobs, retired or fell in line. And legislators continued to appropriate more and more money.

So there are lots of places to assign blame. The larger question is what to do now. The building is up. The judges have moved in.

The Florida Supreme Court hopes to make them share the building with other state court employees who currently spend about $300,000 a year to rent space. And the state's highest court has adopted a new rule that would ban any of the state's judges from setting out on their own to get themselves a new courthouse.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is challenging some of the bills.

And the Judicial Qualifications Commission is investigating. It's unclear what they'll do since all of their work is done in secret unless they decide to file charges against a judge.

Some people ask why we waited until construction was well under way to write about it. That's pretty simple. We did not expect any state official, let alone a group of judges, to build a palace in the midst of a shattered economy.

Then someone called last spring and questioned the ornate building rising from the ground at Southwood.

And so late last spring, I took at drive out to Southwood. The view was stunning.

How could it happen in a state where public employees were being laid off as budgets were slashed? How could it happen in a state where unemployment has been over the top for months and months?

In the beginning, we were going to write one story about an expensive courthouse. Just another bunch of bureaucrats wasting money.

But that was before someone suggested we take a look at the e-mails that went back and forth between the judges and those at the Department of Management Services responsible for the building.

The e-mails were eye-opening. Judges charged with maintaining a standard of conduct that would foster respect for our judicial system were arrogantly demanding control and busy selecting mahogany trim and granite countertops. They even threatened to fire an architect who wanted to design a less expensive building.

It is still hard to believe. But it's there — 60-inch televisions, granite, mahogany, exercise room, kitchens and bathrooms for every judge. The list goes on and on.

Our tax money at work.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Whose fault is the Taj courthouse? 01/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 2:49pm]
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