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Alex Sink orders audit of 'Taj Mahal' courthouse finances

TALLAHASSEE — A preliminary review of funding for the "Taj Mahal'' courthouse indicates the 1st District Court of Appeal may have spent money initially appropriated for other purposes and got $16 million in a raid on the state's Workers' Compensation Trust Fund, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said Monday.

In letters to the Florida Supreme Court and to the agency that oversees construction of state buildings, Sink said the troubling preliminary findings warrant a thorough audit.

Legislative approval of money for the $48 million project came after an intensive lobbying campaign by the 1st District's chief judge, Paul Hawkes, and fellow Judge Brad Thomas, both former legislative staffers.

Sink said the audit will include a look at the $35 million bond issue used for the project, which legislators authorized on the last day of the 2007 session. The courthouse construction was an amendment to a lengthy transportation bill — an amendment many legislators say they were unaware of at the time.

Now, a key legislator has raised new questions about how that happened. Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, was chairman of the House committee that oversaw court expenditures. Dean says he rejected a plea from Hawkes and Thomas to fund the courthouse after Dean toured the existing courthouse. He said he rejected it because the state was slashing budgets, and he said the courts had more important needs than the construction of a new courthouse for the appellate court.

Dean said Hawkes and Thomas indicated they would go around him to get the funding they needed.

"He (Hawkes) just looked at me and grinned and said, 'I got friends,' '' Dean said.

Dean said the two judges had help from Richard Corcoran, then chief of staff for House Speaker Marco Rubio, and from Hawkes' son Jeremiah, who was general counsel for Rubio.

In final budget negotiations that year, Dean said the decision about money for the courthouse was bumped up to then-Appropriations Chairman Ray Sansom and Rubio. The final budget included $7.9 million to begin planning and construction.

"The next thing I knew, they were going to build a building,'' Dean said. He said he didn't know about the last-minute bond issue amendment until he read about it this month in the St. Petersburg Times.

Corcoran, now a Republican nominee for the House from Pasco County, has denied helping Hawkes and Thomas get the project funded. Rubio said the project was a Senate priority that was not controversial at the time, and he said it never would have passed had lawmakers known how the money would be spent.

The project is under construction at Southwood, about 6 miles from the state Capitol. It was dubbed "Taj Mahal'' by judges around Florida who, in tight budget times, have laid off more than 280 courthouse employees and have had to forgo the purchase of law books and building repairs.

The Times story has led to some changes. The 60-inch flat screen televisions planned for each of 18 judicial suites will now be purchased only for four common areas, and none of the dozen or so 46- and 40-inch TVs planned for the offices will be installed.

Gone, too, are the kitchen appliances for each judge's chamber. There will be one central kitchen.

The court includes 15 judges, but the building was planned for future expansion.

Linda South, head of the Department of Management Services, which oversees construction of state buildings, said the changes will save taxpayers money, but she did not have an immediate estimate of how much.

On Monday, South and Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady immediately responded to Sink's notice of an audit, offering cooperation for a review of all expenditures. Hawkes did not respond.

Sink said the audit should be completed within 30 days. Her office, which oversees payment of the state's bills, could reject payment of illegal expenditures.

"If the Legislature approved the spending of scarce state funds on palatial accommodations at a single courthouse,'' said Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor, "the people of Florida have a right to know how this situation came about and just how much it is costing them.''

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

Alex Sink orders audit of 'Taj Mahal' courthouse finances 08/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 7:30am]
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