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Atwater: Taj Mahal courthouse 'far worse' than a pricey building

The 110,000-square-foot courthouse building in Tallahassee houses the 1st District Court of Appeal’s 114 employees.

COLIN HACKLEY | Special to the Times

The 110,000-square-foot courthouse building in Tallahassee houses the 1st District Court of Appeal’s 114 employees.

TALLAHASSEE — State auditors are questioning more than $1 million in bills submitted for the new $50 million courthouse built by the 1st District Court of Appeal.

"This is one of the great embarrassments for Florida government,'' new Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said of the building derided as Florida's Taj Mahal. "The audacity and arrogance that was displayed in doing this and their continuing effort to hide the ball has been a complete disservice to hardworking Floridians who deserve better from public officials.''

The day after Atwater was sworn into office this week, he was briefed by auditors who now work for him. He said he will personally inspect every outstanding bill and will allow no payment until he can determine what was purchased. His auditors are continuing an investigation that started under former CFO Alex Sink.

"I now believe it is far worse than just an expensive building,'' Atwater said.

Some of Atwater's questions surround apparent attempts by the court to buy big screen television sets and furnishings for the courthouse with the proceeds of a $33.5 million bond issue that taxpayers will repay over the next 30 years.

"I cannot imagine financing equipment for 30 years that will depreciate over the next three to five years,'' Atwater said.

A former Senate president, Atwater said he has completely lost confidence in the Department of Management Services, the state agency responsible for overseeing construction of the courthouse. Officials at DMS signed off on the questionable purchases the judges requested.

"I do not believe they (DMS) have been straight with the people of Florida, certainly not with our department,'' he said. "They have been disguising what they were trying to get us to sign off on — and I have only been here a day.''

In October the CFO's scathing audit of the project accused the judges of illegally taking control of planning and construction away from DMS and laid much of the blame on the lobbying of 1st DCA Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas.

Auditors are now questioning a number of bills submitted by DMS for Peter R. Brown Construction Co. and Black Box Network Services, the company providing telecommunications equipment to the court. Black Box billed the state $693,450 for services and electronics equipment but has yet to collect $571,105 due to questions raised by auditors.

A $113,450 bill approved by DMS Nov. 29 lists a series of change orders for Black Box installations with charges for "labor'' without details. One of the items listed as labor is for $58,699.01. That is exactly the amount listed on a Sept. 7 bill for 14 TV sets and a $17,364 "restocking fee'' for the return of 16 60-inch TVs.

The St. Petersburg Times obtained the September bill in a records request from DMS, but officials in Atwater's office say they have never seen the September bill and believe the more recent bill that listed the TVs as "labor'' was an attempt to hide what had been purchased.

When the Times asked for bills DMS paid for electronics or furnishings, DMS initially denied any such payments had been made. But when pressed to provide bills submitted by Black Box, the agency produced a copy of the September bill.

The judges originally planned to put a 60-inch flat screen in each of 16 judges' chambers but apparently returned the televisions after the Times reported in August on the courthouse's many luxuries. Auditors are also questioning the legality of the restocking fee Black Box requested.

Auditors say they can't immediately determine how many televisions the court is attempting to buy. They sent an inspector out to count after getting a bill for nine. The inspector found the nine sets, plus two more still in boxes. The court was paying $5,978 for each 60-inch television, $2,273 for 47-inch televisions and $3,325 for 52-inch televisions, far more than the price of similar-sized TVs at major electronic stores.

Internal memos indicate auditors could not determine what was being purchased in one December bill for $145,000. When they asked for additional documentation they discovered that $41,000 of the total was for the nine TVs.

Officials at DMS did not respond to detailed requests for comment on Friday.

First DCA marshal Stephen Nevels says the court has 27 televisions in the new building: nine 60-inch monitors; two 52-inch; seven 46-inch; three 42-inch; two 40-inch; and four 17-inch. Nevels said the court has not seen any of the bills that have been handled by DMS.

Atwater is trying to unravel other questionable expenditures. One involves the purchase of art for the new building, and vendors that DMS and the court authorized to provide services that exceed the $100,000 limit on art that state law says can be purchased for a new building.

One of those vendors is Signature Art Gallery, owned by Mary Maida, wife of Tallahassee lawyer Tom Maida. The gallery agreed to frame 400 historical photos in the new building at a cost of more than $357,000, money that was to be paid by construction manager Peter R. Brown. In addition the court has agreed to pay $72,000 for original paintings by seven Florida artists.

The framed photographs include scenes from the 32 counties in Florida's northern district: greased pig contests, tobacco farms, lighthouses, cotton pickers, Tarzan at Wakulla Springs and other historic scenes.

Auditors have refused to approve payment of the bill because it exceeds the $100,000 limit. Some at the court have argued that the photos are not art and should not be included in the amount state law allows for art when a new building is built.

The situation leaves Mrs. Maida, owner of a small gallery in northeast Tallahassee, with a huge unpaid bill. Her husband, a lawyer at Foley & Lardner, has written to lawyers in Atwater's office asking for copies of all records relating to the art.

He has not filed a lawsuit. "I hope we don't have to,'' Tom Maida said when asked about the debt. "We certainly believe she is entitled to be paid by the state.''

It will be up to Atwater to decide. He's trying to determine what the state should do where a vendor has entered into a contract in good faith expecting to be paid for work — but that work violates state law.

Meanwhile Hawkes, chief judge during much of the construction project, and other officials involved in the project have been asked to appear before a Senate budget committee Wednesday to answer questions about the new courthouse. Thomas, the other judge who helped lobby for the project, also was invited. On Friday he notified the committee he will not appear.

"He had no problem coming to lobby for a $50 million courthouse, but now he can't come back to answer questions,'' said committee Chairman Mike Fasano.

Thomas did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

Lawmakers approved the money for the project and passed a $33.5 million bond issue that was tucked into an unrelated transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. They say they had no idea the judges planned to build such an elaborate building.

The 110,000-square-foot building houses the 1st District's 114 employees. Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady is working on plans to remodel part of the building to accommodate 50 to 60 state court administrative employees, who could move out of rented quarters and save the state about $300,000 a year.

Atwater said he cannot allow the problems with the new building to go unaddressed. "There are people at DMS who tried to stop this, at least tried to bring a level of thoughtful scrutiny to it and it may have cost them their jobs,'' he said.

"We should be championing those people.''

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

No discount

Though the state was buying in quantity, newly released numbers show taxpayers did not get a break in buying electronics for the Taj Mahal courthouse.

$5,978

Price per 60-inch TV

$3,325

Price per 52-inch TV

$2,273

Price per 47-inch TV

$17,364

"Restocking fee'' for state to return of 16 60-inch TVs, more than $1,000 apiece

$357,000

Cost to frame some 400 historical photos, about $890 each

Source: Office of Chief Financial Officer

Atwater: Taj Mahal courthouse 'far worse' than a pricey building 01/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 11:17am]

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