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Judge behind lavish courthouse "lied'' in his testimony, legislator says

TALLAHASSEE — Called before an angry Senate committee with questions about a new $50 million courthouse, 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Paul Hawkes spent a lot of time saying he could not recall the answers.

When he did answer, he made multiple statements at odds with the facts. Among them:

• Hawkes said former Gov. Jeb Bush wanted the 1st DCA to build a new building. In fact, Bush threatened to veto money for the project unless the judges looked into expanding their old building.

• Hawkes said the very Senate committee he was before approved a bond issue for the courthouse. In fact, the committee never voted on it.

• He said the construction manager wanted to provide a free trip to Michigan for the judges to take a second look at their Supreme Court building. In fact, the contractor agreed to pay for the trip only after a state agency and Hawkes' own court refused to pick up the tab. The contractor questioned the legality of the trip.

What did Sen. Mike Fasano, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, think of Hawkes' appearance?

"He lied,'' Fasano said.

Hawkes did not respond to a detailed request for comment.

Hawkes and fellow Judge Brad Thomas, both former legislative staffers, led a five-year lobbying effort to build the new courthouse and equip it with the finest of furnishings. Both appeared before Fasano's committee this week. They were not under oath.

"It was actually Gov. Bush who told us that remodeling, he did not think, was the most efficient way to meet our needs,'' Hawkes told the committee.

"And Gov. Bush, in deciding whether or not to veto the $1.8 million appropriation, solicited a promise from us and a promise from DMS (Department of Management Services) that we would look at all alternatives before making a decision because he did not think that remodeling our existing facilities would be economical.''

Bush appointed Hawkes to his seat on the court, and the former governor has declined to comment on Hawkes and the "Taj Mahal'' courthouse. But advised that Hawkes told the committee the new building was his idea, Bush said that was "strange.''

It was the other way around, Bush told the St. Petersburg Times via e-mail. He said he was going to veto the $1.8 million appropriation in the 2006 budget unless the 1st DCA pursued remodeling their existing building in downtown Tallahassee.

E-mails at the time support Bush's recollection. The judges already had voted to build a new building in Southwood, 6 miles east of the Capitol, and scrambled to avoid Bush's veto threat with letters promising to consider remodeling and expansion of their old courthouse.

Bush left the money in the budget six months before he left office, and the judges moved full speed ahead toward the new building.

In 2007, the judges got lawmakers to appropriate another $7.9 million toward construction and slipped an amendment into a transportation bill that authorized a $33.5 million bond issue for the new building.

Hawkes told the Senate Budget Committee Wednesday that the court did not ask for a bond issue, insisting it was approved by members of that same committee.

"This committee made the decision to bond and put the $7.9 million to pay the non-bondable expenses,'' Hawkes said, adding that the judges tried to make the project "as transparent as possible.''

Fasano erupted. "Now hold on for a second. Transparent? Amending a piece of legislation in the waning hours of session with a $33 plus million bond issue in it, is that transparent? That never went through a committee. That was never heard by a committee.''

"Mr. Chairman,'' Hawkes insisted, "I think that what was transparent was the decision to bond the building made by this committee.''

In fact, committee records do not include a vote on the 2007 bond issue.

Regarding the flight to Michigan, Hawkes told Fasano's committee it was the construction manager's idea.

"Peter Brown ... asked if they wanted to go to Michigan in order to see Michigan and to study Michigan, and they asked if some members of the court, some members from DMS and some of the architects wanted to go with them ... they would pay for the trip.''

In fact, Hawkes turned to the construction manager only after he couldn't get his own court or DMS to pay for the trip.

Hawkes and two other judges flew by private plane chartered by Peter G. Brown Construction. "Prior to our going,'' the project manager e-mailed the judges and others at the time, "I just wanted to confirm that this trip would be no violation of state laws nor would it create any conflict for the court.''

Scott Brewer, a senior vice president for Peter R. Brown Co. was at Wednesday's meeting but the committee ran out of time before calling him.

"Unfortunately we are caught in the middle of this,'' Brewer said. "We did exactly what we were contracted to do and finished a beautiful building under budget and on time.''

Also Wednesday, Hawkes blamed the miles of African mahogany and granite countertops on recommendations from the architects, the woodworking contractor and others.

Architect Rick Barnett said in an interview he did not recommend the mahogany and granite that he said the judges saw in the Michigan courthouse and wanted for themselves. Said Barnett: "We felt we could build a nice courthouse for the original $33 million estimate we started with.''

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

Judge behind lavish courthouse "lied'' in his testimony, legislator says 01/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 12:05am]
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