Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Trip to see furnishings for 'Taj Mahal' was quashed

1st District Court Chief Judge Paul M. Hawkes

1st District Court Chief Judge Paul M. Hawkes

TALLAHASSEE — Three years ago, when Paul M. Hawkes was chairman of the building committee for the courthouse now called the "Taj Mahal," he checked into buying more than $1 million in furniture for the building.

It was to be bought through a state-approved vendor in Tallahassee. According to the then-chief judge of the 1st District Court of Appeal and according to the court's longtime marshal, Hawkes wanted to visit the furniture manufacturer in southern Indiana.

They say the manufacturer was going to take Hawkes and two family members on a river cruise and wine and dine them at the Turf Club at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby in nearby Louisville.

The marshal heard about it, thought it didn't sound proper and informed the chief judge, who summoned Hawkes to his office and told him he couldn't go.

"He was chairman of the court's building committee and about to buy $1.2 million worth of furniture and equipment," recalled former Chief Judge Edwin B. Browning Jr. "How would it look to the public? I didn't want it to happen on my watch."

Hawkes became chief judge a year or so later. Browning and Don Brannon, the marshal who had ratted out Hawkes, say the new chief judge got his revenge.

"I had been there 30 years. It was my job to run the court," Brannon said. "But when he took over I was just put over to the side. He made all the decisions."

Said Browning: "He (Hawkes) shunned Brannon and put him in cold storage. He retired early because he couldn't stand the way he was being treated."

In an e-mail, Hawkes said the former chief judge and former marshal have the story completely wrong: "Never even thought about going to Louisville, Ky. (That I am aware of)

"Never brought any family member on any trip without paying the cost myself (For instance I have brought my wife to DCA conferences and paid the cost myself).

"Never 'checked out' any furniture manufacturer.

"Never did anything improper (Nor did I ever commit some kind of improper thought crime — If there is such a thing)."

• • •

Using money left over at the end of a budget year, the 1st DCA had purchased 45 new desks for its law clerks and given the old desks to other courthouses in need.

The judges liked the desks, manufactured by Indiana Furniture of Jasper, Ind., and were looking into buying much more for their new building.

Brannon, the marshal, said he got a call from Stanley Nettles, a salesman from Executive Office Furniture Inc. in Tallahassee. A state-approved vendor, Executive Office has sold state agencies more than $6.4 million in supplies and furniture since 2005.

Nettles told Brannon that Hawkes was planning a trip to the manufacturer and was going to bring family as well. Indiana Furniture was going to take them on a cruise on the Ohio River and to dine at the Turf Club at Churchill Downs, in nearby Louisville.

"I get a call from Stan Nettles," Brannon recalled. "Hawkes wanted a trip for him, his son and brother. Stan said the (manufacturing) company was willing to pay for the son and brother, but wanted the court to pay for Hawkes."

Brannon didn't think the trip sounded right and informed Browning, the chief judge.

Browning said he asked Nettles, the furniture company salesman, to come see him so he could ask directly about the trip. "I didn't want any misunderstanding," Browning said. "When a salesman of long experience blows the whistle, I have to take it seriously."

Next Browning summoned Hawkes for a face-to-face meeting. "I said no way that this can happen," Browning recalled. "He said, 'There's been a misunderstanding.' I said that may be, but this just can't be done."

Nettles, the salesman at Executive Office, said the furniture manufacturer was willing to pay the expenses for any of the judges to travel to Louisville, take a riverboat cruise and visit Churchill Downs and drive out to the factory. Nettles said that after he met with Browning and Brannon, the chief judge said they were not interested in anyone making the trip.

And, said Nettles, "Once Judge Hawkes became the chief judge, we weren't consulted at all."

Bobby Jett, general manager at Executive Office, said he knew his company tried to sell the court furniture for the new building, but he didn't know about the manufacturer's plan to host Hawkes and family members.

Jett said his company would not have been involved in any such trip. "We want to stay aboveboard on everything. We tried to convince them to stay with what is on the Department of Management Services contract."

Executive Office ultimately did not get the contract.

• • •

Browning questioned another trip by Hawkes, and by fellow judges Brad Thomas and James Wolf. The court already had financed a trip to look at the Michigan Supreme Court, but in 2008 the project manager on the new courthouse, Peter G. Brown Construction, paid for a private jet to take the judges, the court clerk, architects and construction company executives for a second look.

The chief judge called it "ill advised" and refused to go. "It seems inappropriate to me for court members and employees to be flying at the contractor's expense when we are in a supervisory role to the contractor," Browning said in an e-mail June 10, 2008.

He retired as chief judge in 2009. By tradition, the court would have rotated the chief's job to the next senior judge, but Hawkes wanted to jump the line. The election for chief divided the court.

Brannon said word spread of Hawkes' aborted trip to the furniture manufacturer. "It got out when he was running for chief judge, and he tried to tell me that it didn't happen that way, that he had nothing to do with it."

Soon after Hawkes became chief, the widely respected marshal retired.

"After Hawkes was chief judge, it was clear he didn't care for me much," Brannon said.

Brannon was 62, with 30 years at the court and no plans to retire. Instead, in April 2009, he made an unceremonious exit. He said he sent a letter to the judges informing them he was leaving. He said he didn't say a word to Hawkes.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at

Trip to see furnishings for 'Taj Mahal' was quashed 10/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 3:12pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. What you need to know for Thursday, May 25


    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    To catch a ring of poachers who targeted Florida's million-dollar alligator farming industry, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission set up an undercover operation. They created their own alligator farm, complete with plenty of real, live alligators, watched over by real, live undercover wildlife officers. It also had hidden video cameras to record everything that happened. That was two years ago, and on Wednesday wildlife officers announced that they arrested nine people on  44 felony charges alleging they broke wildlife laws governing alligator harvesting, transporting eggs and hatchlings across state lines, dealing in stolen property, falsifying records, racketeering and conspiracy. The wildlife commission released these photos of alligators, eggs and hatchlings taken during the undercover operation. [Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
  2. Trigaux: Amid a record turnout, regional technology group spotlights successes, desire to do more


    ST. PETERSBURG — They came. They saw. They celebrated Tampa Bay's tech momentum.

    A record turnout event by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, held May 24 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, featured a panel of area tech executives talking about the challenges encountered during their respective mergers and acquisitions. Show, from left to right, are: Gerard Purcell, senior vice president of global IT integration at Tech Data Corp.; John Kuemmel, chief information officer at Triad Retail Media, and Chris Cate, chief operating officer at Valpak. [Robert Trigaux, Times]
  3. Take 2: Some fear Tampa Bay Next transportation plan is TBX redux


    TAMPA — For many, Wednesday's regional transportation meeting was a dose of deja vu.

    The Florida Department of Transportation on Monday announced that it was renaming its controversial Tampa Bay Express plan, also known as TBX. The plan will now be known as Tampa Bay Next, or TBN. But the plan remains the same: spend $60 billion to add 90 miles of toll roads to bay area interstates that are currently free of tolls. [Florida Department of Transportation]
  4. Hailed as 'pioneers,' students from St. Petersburg High's first IB class return 30 years later


    ST. PETERSBURG — The students came from all over Pinellas County, some enduring hot bus rides to a school far from home. At first, they barely knew what to call themselves. All they knew was that they were in for a challenge.

    Class of 1987 alumni Devin Brown, from left, and D.J. Wagner, world history teacher Samuel Davis and 1987 graduate Milford Chavous chat at their table.
  5. Flower boxes on Fort Harrison in Clearwater to go, traffic pattern to stay


    I travel Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater often and I've noticed that the travel lanes have been rerouted to allow for what looks like flower boxes that have been painted by children. There are also a few spaces that push the travel lane to the center that have no boxes. Is this a permanent travel lane now? It …