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Backers of lavish courthouse in Tallahassee apologize and dodge

TALLAHASSEE — There were apologies all around Wednesday as members of a Senate budget committee heard from those involved in building the posh courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Two of the court's judges apologized if they went beyond what legislators wanted when they built the $50 million courthouse. Legislators apologized for giving the court so much money in the first place. The Department of Management Services apologized for not supervising the project properly.

"Any role that I've had that brought this project beyond legislative intent was never my intent, and I would apologize for that,'' said Judge Paul M. Hawkes, who pushed the project through the Legislature and supervised construction.

The other, Judge Brad Thomas, said he was sorry if anybody was bothered by what he did: "… To the extent that any expenditures were made on this building and any construction done that exceeds the legislative intent and has offended you and this committee … I sincerely apologize.''

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady said the state's highest court is coming up with rules and remedies to keep it from happening again.

Canady noted that he referred an audit of the project to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and changed the leadership at the court, ordering Hawkes to resign as chief judge. Hawkes remains on the court.

Canady will require future projects to be under the direct supervision of the state court administrator and is drafting rules that would prohibit judges from lobbying for any substantive changes in the law or budget priorities without approval from the Supreme Court. He is also planning to relocate 50 employees from rental quarters into the new courthouse.

Hawkes repeatedly said he could not remember things, including comments he made to a House committee chairman who refused to put money in the budget for the courthouse in 2007. Nor could he remember when asked about an e-mail in which he said the court would need to "kiss the rings'' to get lawmakers to approve more money for the building.

"You don't recall?'' committee chairman Mike Fasano said in a voice loaded with sarcasm. "Would you rely on this kind of testimony in a courtroom, judge?"

Fasano said later: "I'm saddened that two judges of the 1st DCA were not honest, were not straightforward, didn't give us answers they should have given and avoided answering questions. They are truly expert at playing dodgeball.

"You had two judges who wanted a Taj Mahal and cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.''

When asked about equipping the court with miles of African mahogany and granite countertops and an impressive dome, Hawkes blamed prior members of the very committee he was standing before, who he said wanted the court to use quality construction materials and build an environmentally conscious structure, even if it cost more. He said architects and the builder recommended the mahogany trim after the woodworking company recommended it.

"I could see how the builder and the architect might say, 'We're going to make a nice pile of money with change orders,' '' noted Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

Committee members raised questions about the dismissal of a DMS employee and the demotion of another who questioned giving so much authority to the judges. Reading from e-mails the judges sent demanding more control, Storms said it was a clear abuse of power by judges who should be investigated by the JQC.

"Let this be a lesson to you,'' Storms said to DMS employees in the room. "I understand what happened. You got political pressure and somebody's knees buckled. You did what was not right — you did this to save your job. Was it worth it?''

Acting DMS Secretary David Faulkenberry said former DMS Secretary Linda South would have to answer questions about political pressure and whether anyone's job was threatened.

Fasano said the committee needs to take a closer look at the DMS employees who were demoted or fired for doing a good job. But he said he doesn't think Senate leadership supports further investigation of the building.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said as much later Wednesday. He said lawmakers already have learned "plenty'' and need to move on to more pressing issues, like the state's $3.5 billion budget shortfall.

"Our job isn't to go out to a construction site and see what's going on,'' Haridopolos said. "We need a DMS that will tell them what to do. I hope we've learned from this.''

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who is on the budget committee and chairs the powerful rules committee, said he does not oppose further investigation and believes legislative rule changes can help prevent similar occurrences.

Thrasher acknowledged getting a friendly visit from Hawkes after the meeting, saying the judge is a longtime friend who just stopped by to "say hello.''

Before the meeting ended, Fasano told DMS officials they need to turn out the lights at the building. Deputy Secretary Tom Berger said the courthouse has a "very sophisticated lighting controls'' to illuminate the glass dome and building at night.

"It's kind of sad,'' Fasano said. "Turn those lights off. We don't need to advertise the Taj Mahal, we don't need the building lit up as if we were visiting Disney World.''

Some committee members suggesting selling the building or moving the Supreme Court into it. Several wondered if the expensive art work — 400 photos framed at a cost of $357,000 — could be sold on eBay.

Whatever happens next, it's clear the fallout will have lasting impact on the state's courts. Lawmakers must prepare a budget to run the courts, and Fasano said the failure to spend dollars appropriately and arrogance in how it's been spent will not be rewarded.

"We're going to penalize you, and we're going to do that with the five district court of appeals in this year's budget.''

Staff writer Katie Sanders and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Backers of lavish courthouse in Tallahassee apologize and dodge 01/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 10:56pm]
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