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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 lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Trip to see furnishings for 'Taj Mahal' was quashed 10/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 4:12pm]

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