'Taj Mahal' courthouse takes heat from officials

The 1st District Court of Appeal is building a new home southeast of the Capitol. Sen. Mike Fasano said a judge who lobbied for funds for the building “broke every protocol for judges in the book.’’

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The 1st District Court of Appeal is building a new home southeast of the Capitol. Sen. Mike Fasano said a judge who lobbied for funds for the building “broke every protocol for judges in the book.’’

TALLAHASSEE — Those 60-inch LCD television screens may not grace the walls of the judges at the 1st District Court of Appeal's fancy new building.

Also, judges could someday be banned from lobbying the state Legislature.

Those are some of the things under discussion in the wake of a St. Petersburg Times story describing the sneaky way two of the 1st District judges managed to get themselves a new courthouse that some are calling a "Taj Mahal.'' Or "Taj MaHawke.''

Budgets are being slashed in courthouses across the state, but 1st District Chief Judge Paul Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas, both former legislative employees, managed to gain legislative approval of a bond issue to help fund the $48 million building nearing completion at Southwood, about 6 miles southeast of the Capitol.

Some lawmakers and candidates for two statewide offices denounced the way the judges used their legislative contacts to get an amendment authorizing a $33.5 million bond issue buried in a transportation bill on the final day of the 2007 legislative session. The state had never floated a bond issue to build a courthouse.

After the Times asked questions about the building, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady sent Hawkes a letter saying that Senate Ways & Means chairman J.D. Alexander wants the court to take steps to minimize costs, including sharing office space with the Office of the State Courts Administrator.

Because the court system rents space for its administrative staff, Canady asked Hawkes to help reduce overall costs by giving up some of the space the court does not immediately need.

Hawkes has not responded to the chief judge, and he did not respond to a Times reporter Tuesday.

The 1st District court had agreed to buy 60-inch LCD televisions for each of its 15 judges, plus five additional ones for other offices.

But Linda South, secretary of the Department of Management Services, the state agency that oversees construction of state buildings, said Tuesday that the audio visual equipment being purchased for the new courthouse "is under review.''

South said DMS has not signed a contract to allow the purchase.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he has asked his staff to come up with a bill that would ban judges from lobbying, or at minimum, come up with suggestions for changing legislative rules that would require judges to register. Current rules exempt judges from having to register to lobby.

"These judges come to Tallahassee and complain about not having things, but they seem to have time to lobby for a $40 million building,'' Fasano said. "Paul Hawkes may be a nice gentleman, but he forgets he is no longer a legislator. He broke every protocol for judges in the book.''

Fasano, who was chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was not aware the amendment to build the courthouse had been added to the transportation bill.

"It's disgusting,'' said Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor. "You have a politician who became a judge and worked with his cronies in the Legislature to spend our taxpayer money in a time of great distress for our court system.''

Former Rep. Lorrane Ausley, now a Democratic candidate for chief financial officer, criticized the financing and pledged to use the office to stop wasteful contracts.

Fasano, Ausley and several other lawmakers who were in the Legislature when the unusual bond issue was authorized in 2007 say they were unaware of how the money was raised until they read the Times report.

"There was no cash that year,'' Fasano said. "That's why someone came up with the idea to float a bond issue. Now the courts will have to pay it back.''

DMS is responsible for repaying the bonds, at about $2.4 million a year. The agency will use the approximately $1.7 million in rent the district court will have to pay for the building.

Judges around the state have been critical of the Tallahassee appellate court because it adds what they say is an unnecessary financial burden to courts already in difficulty.

Leon County Commission Chairman Bob Rackleff took exception to those who describe the new courthouse as a Taj Mahal.

"The real Taj Mahal is too handsome a building to be linked to the new 1st DCA building,'' he said in an e-mail. "It more resembles the presidential palace in a third world dictatorship.''

Staff writers John Frank and Lee Logan contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

'Taj Mahal' courthouse takes heat from officials 08/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 5:53pm]

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