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E-mail names 'heroes' who got legislative funding for 'Taj Mahal' courthouse

Funding for the 1st District Court of Appeal’s new $48 million courthouse, seen as of Sept. 1, was approved in the 2007 session.

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Funding for the 1st District Court of Appeal’s new $48 million courthouse, seen as of Sept. 1, was approved in the 2007 session.

Sometimes being a "hero'' isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Take Marco Rubio. Since the story first broke about the palatial new courthouse being built in Tallahassee, the former House speaker has said it was a Senate priority, and he couldn't even remember the money being appropriated to build it.

But now the St. Petersburg Times has obtained an e-mail circulated among the judges on the courthouse building committee that identifies the "heroes'' in delivering the money to build it.

Among them, the e-mail identifies a select few who were "especially helpful,'' including Rubio.

"I have never heard of this list'' of heroes, Rubio said this week. "I was aware of a request to build a new courthouse for the 1st DCA, but it was not something I worked on as speaker.''

The $48 million courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal has been panned for its opulence at a time when money is tight. Plans initially called for each judge to get a 60-inch flat-screen TV in his or her mahogany-paneled chambers, and for each judge to get a private bathroom and kitchen, with granite countertops. Some extras were scrapped after the negative publicity.

Recent news stories told how money to build the "Taj Mahal'' courthouse was slipped through as an amendment to an unrelated, 142-page transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. Lawmakers were quick to condemn the over-the-top features and the legislative process that funded them, which is why lawmakers who generally can't get enough of being treated as heroes want no part of the "heroes'' e-mail.

"I certainly don't want to take any credit for it,'' Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said of making the list. The courthouse is "a disaster, a monstrosity. I doubt that people in the Legislature had any idea what they were doing.''

More than just listing heroes, the e-mail named a select list of those "especially helpful'' in getting the funding, including Rubio and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa.

Dated April 29, 2008, the e-mail exchanged by judges on the building committee and court staffers encouraged them to personally thank those who helped secure the funding.

It listed seven House members, five senators, three lobbyists, six Senate and 10 House staffers, and then-Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell.

Rubio, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, has repeatedly said the courthouse was a Senate project and the House knew nothing about the architectural plans. He said it was part of the last-minute House and Senate give and take.

Rubio's appropriations chairman, former Rep. Ray Sansom, remembers it differently.

In a recent interview, Sansom said $7.9 million included in the 2007-08 budget for courthouse "expansion'' was a Rubio priority. He said Rubio confirmed his support for the project several times between November 2006 and the end of the 2007 session.

He said 1st DCA Chief Judge Paul Hawkes frequently visited Sansom's office to remind him the project was a priority of Rubio's. As was Sansom's practice whenever someone said he had the speaker's backing, Sansom said he went to Rubio to make sure.

"I asked, and Speaker Rubio said yes, it was a priority and important to FSU to get a new building, too,'' Sansom said, adding that nobody from the Senate contacted him about wanting money for the courthouse.

Sansom said he did not know about a last-minute amendment authorizing a $35 million bond issue that was attached to a major House transportation bill until he read about it in the Times last month.

By tradition, several legislators said, in the final two days of a session, the House speaker personally approves any amendment attached to an important House bill.

In an unrelated case, Sansom has been criminally charged with grand theft in connection with a $6 million appropriation in the 2007 budget for a friend's airplane hangar. He has denied wrongdoing, and his trial is scheduled for January.

The e-mail listing heroes includes Sen. Victor Crist, who is now running for the Hillsborough County Commission, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, who is now running for St. Lucie County property appraiser.

Crist, chairman of the Senate criminal justice appropriations committee in 2007, said the bond issue was not included in discussions before the final days of the session, when he sponsored the last-minute amendment. He said he did it at the direction of Pruitt — who says he does not recall any such thing.

Pruitt said he did nothing to help build the courthouse and can't imagine why he made the heroes list.

"There are lots of times we got awards just for being president,'' Pruitt said. "I take full responsibility that (the courthouse funding) happened on my watch, and I should have a recollection of it, but I don't. It wasn't something that rose to my level of being important.''

That is the mirror image of what Rubio said: The courthouse was a Senate priority of such little importance to him that he can't remember it.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, also listed as a "hero,'' said Rubio had to have approved the bill. "It's easy to blame Victor, but it was in a House transportation bill; only the speaker could approve it,'' Villalobos said.

"I did zero to be a hero. I think it's a ridiculous building. I didn't do squat. And I didn't know about the bond issue at all.''

Future House speakers Weatherford and Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, both made the "heroes" list but not the "especially helpful'' list, which names Rubio, Victor Crist, Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, and Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota.

Other lawmakers named "heroes" are Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales; Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey; Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland; and Republican Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

Coley and Crist will have their names on a plaque at the new courthouse, and Coley is proud of the courthouse going up in her district. She said the 1st DCA needed a new building, and FSU benefits as well. Its law school will get the DCA's current building. FSU already has gotten lawmakers to appropriate more than $13 million for renovations to the old court building.

FSU president and "hero" Wetherell said he helped FSU get the old building for law school expansion but said he had no role in getting funding for the new courthouse.

The law school recruited three lobbyists to help: "heroes" Steve Metz, Peter Dunbar and John Thrasher.

"We had very little to do with the money that got appropriated to the court,'' Metz said, though he did visit Rubio and Sansom to make FSU's case for getting the building the 1st DCA will vacate.

Dunbar said he never expected to see a courthouse built with granite countertops and other luxuries. He worries about the impact the luxurious new courthouse might have on the state's circuit judges, who are among his clients.

"Now the fallout from this is going to affect my guys in Clearwater and next door in Leon County,'' Dunbar said. "My judges always get kicked in the teeth.''

Staff writer Lee Logan and researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

The heroes list

The building committee of the 1st District Court of Appeal circulated an e-mail in 2008 that identified the "heroes'' behind the new courthouse and lauded the few who were "especially helpful.'' Here is the list, without the names of six Senate and 10 House staffers:

"Especially helpful''

House Speaker Marco Rubio

Sen. Victor Crist

Rep. Marti Coley

Rep. Ron Reagan

Other heroes

Senate President Ken Pruitt

Sen. Alex Villalobos

Sen. J.D. Alexander

Sen. Lisa Carlton

Rep. Ray Sansom

Rep. Dennis Ross

Rep. Dean Cannon

Rep. Will Weatherford

Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp

FSU President T.K. Wetherell

Lobbyist Stephen W. Metz

Lobbyist Peter M. Dunbar

Lobbyist John E. Thrasher (since elected to the Senate)

Rubio: It was a Senate priority

After it was reported that a $33.5 million bond issue to build a courthouse was amended to an unrelated transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 legislative session, Marco Rubio, the House speaker at the time, was asked what he knew about the bill.

Aug. 10, 2010

"I don't know the specific project you are referring to. I don't recall it. ... Court funding is usually part of a process of funding the judiciary. The judiciary comes to the Legislature every year and make requests of what they want to see funded and what their priorities are."

Aug. 10, 2010

Did Rubio know the $33.5 million bond issue was included in the unrelated transportation bill? Campaign spokesman Alex Burgos responded:

"This project was a priority for the members of the Senate and signed by Governor Crist. Marco did not advocate for it and believes we should all be concerned about how taxpayer dollars are being spent."

Aug. 11, 2010

The Times again asked the question Rubio had not answered: Did he know about the authorization for the $33.5 million bond issue? Burgos answered:

"Marco was aware that construction of a new building for the 1st DCA became a priority for the Senate. The Senate put together a specific appropriation for it and stuck it in an unrelated bill late in session. The bill contained other provisions that were important to some members of the House. There was no opposition or controversy about it at that time.''

Sept. 19, 2010

Did Rubio know the judges of the 1st District Court of Appeal included him on a list of "especially helpful ... heroes'' who got the courthouse funded?

"I have never heard of this list. I was aware of a request to build a new courthouse for the 1st DCA, but it was not something I worked on as speaker.

"I also do not recall there being any objection raised by anyone to this project. At the time it was proposed there was never any indication that the money would be misspent on flat screen TVs, marble countertops and other unnecessary amenities. After it was approved, Governor Crist also reviewed this spending item and thought it was appropriate when he signed the budget.''

E-mail names 'heroes' who got legislative funding for 'Taj Mahal' courthouse 09/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 12:41am]
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