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State overseer defends role on 'Taj Mahal' courthouse

TALLAHASSEE — The state agency supervising construction of a new 1st District Court of Appeal says it saved the state money while supervising construction of the new courthouse many call a "Taj Mahal."

In a formal response to a highly critical audit of the project released last month by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, officials at the Department of Management Services say they complied with state laws, used money provided by the Legislature and supervised construction of a building design selected by the court's judges.

"DMS has met all its responsibilities … and done so in a professional manner," Secretary Linda South noted in a 13-page response submitted Thursday to legislators, the Florida Supreme Court and others.

The response rejected several of Sink's conclusions, saying the agency complied with Florida laws and did not allow the judges to take control of the $48 million project.

Sink's auditors accused the judges of bullying state officials to build a lavish, mahogany-paneled courthouse filled with expensive amenities that should not have been allowed.

Sink blamed the DMS for losing control of the project and failing to seek competitive bids as required by law. South said her agency used a construction management process allowed by law to select a project manager who then secured bids.

The DMS attempted to limit the finished portions of the building and allow for completion when growth dictated the need, South noted, but an agreement to limit construction fell apart in 2008 when the judges lobbied and received $5.5 million in additional money from the Legislature without the DMS' knowledge.

In an interview last month, South said the DMS had no authority to fund a construction project but merely complied with the law and supervised the building, taking design directions from the court.

South said Thursday she expects legislators will ask her agency to explain the project after newly elected lawmakers convene later this month.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos has called for South to resign, saying she should have had better control of the project. South countered that her agency is not to blame for money state lawmakers agreed to spend on the project.

She says she has long planned to leave state government at the end of the year, when Gov. Charlie Crist leaves office.

State overseer defends role on 'Taj Mahal' courthouse 11/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:10pm]
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