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Crist says it's best JQC investigates 'Taj Mahal' courthouse issues

An audit by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink’s office is highly critical of the 1st District Court of Appeal’s new courthouse.

Office of Chief Financial Officer

An audit by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink’s office is highly critical of the 1st District Court of Appeal’s new courthouse.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist says he doesn't think it would be appropriate for him to ask his own staff to investigate the 1st District Court of Appeal's posh new courthouse.

"One of the main individuals involved in this is my opponent, Marco Rubio," Crist said in an interview Wednesday. "It's best for the Judicial Qualifications Commission to take a look at it."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady said his own inspector general will review the audit, and on Wednesday the court sent copies to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the agency that can discipline or remove judges.

Asked about a report that he had also asked the DCA's Chief Judge, Paul M. Hawkes, to step down, Canady said, "No comment."

Hawkes did not return a message seeking comment.

Crist said he's glad Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink had her staff audit the new building. He said he thinks it's important to look at the way it was funded, with a last minute, $33.5 million bond issue stuck into an unrelated bill on the last day of the 2007 legislative session.

Sink released the audit Tuesday, with strong criticism of the district court judges and the Department of Management Services, the state agency in charge of building and leasing facilities. She accused the judges of bullying the state agency and taking control of the construction project.

Sink said the judges and the DMS violated state laws, rules or accepted financial policies in 17 different instances and caused the cost of the building to go from $33 million to $48 million with the installation of luxury items like granite countertops and mahogany trim.

Some legislators are reportedly questioning whether DMS Secretary Linda South should keep her job in light of the audit criticism. South would not comment Wednesday. Her boss, the governor, said he believes lawmakers with a complaint about the courthouse "should first look in the mirror."

"It looks like the Taj Mahal," Crist said. "It's extraordinary and pretty remarkable given that we're trying to tighten our belt. … and they slip something into a transportation bill."

Judges at the court lobbied for several years as they pushed lawmakers to allocate the funds for the $48 million building. Internal e-mails obtained by the St. Petersburg Times last month included a 2008 memo identifying Rubio as one of the "heroes" who helped the court get the money to build the courthouse.

One e-mail Hawkes sent his fellow judges described final budget negotiations as "on & off again" and successful only when he and fellow Judge Brad Thomas "had a very successful meeting with Speaker Rubio."

Rubio initially denied working on the project and denied knowledge of the bond issue. Later he said it was a Senate priority that won approval in the final give and take of a legislative session.

Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, chief of the court at the time, says he asked for a meeting with Gov. Crist in an attempt to get the bond issue vetoed. Crist said he does not recall the request and did not realize the bond issue had been tucked into another bill until he read about it in the Times in August.

Florida Bar president Mayanne Downs on Wednesday joined the chorus of those who are disturbed the way the building was funded but warned that the controversy is a dangerous distraction that should not keep legislators from adequately funding the state's courts.

"Budgets have been cut and judges' pay reduced, but the people in our courts continue to work harder than ever to address growing caseloads," Downs said in a written statement.

Also Wednesday, a meeting between Canady, Hawkes and DMS officials was canceled due to the release of Sink's audit. Canady had called the meeting to discuss a proposal that would take about 12,000 of the 110,000-square-foot building to house administrative employees of the state court system.

DMS officials estimate it would cost about $475,000 to remodel space in the building for additional employees.

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

Crist says it's best JQC investigates 'Taj Mahal' courthouse issues 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 10:48pm]

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