Public records show asphalt wasn't good enough for the scheming appellate judges who orchestrated the conspiracy to build themselves a palatial $48 million courthouse in Tallahassee. Their drive into a parking garage at the new 1st District Court of Appeal required concrete — even though all other parking lots could be asphalt. Their private bathrooms would need soundproofing; their spacious chambers, individual thermostats; and the courthouse's rotunda columns, a treatment to look like marble.
But then-Chief Judge Paul Hawkes wanted to be sure everyone kept in mind the big picture in early 2009 after he drove by the "Taj Mahal" construction site. He wrote an e-mail to his colleagues evoking President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg: "Our efforts will not be long remembered, but they are of great note."
Instead, the ostentatious courthouse that opened Monday is a monument to self-entitlement, insider dealing and the abuse of power — all at taxpayer expense. Public records detail how all three branches of government are to blame, as shown in a time line published Sunday and painstakingly compiled by St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan.
Among the details Morgan disclosed:
• The misdirection went straight to the top. In 2006, then-1st DCA Chief Judge Charles Kahn promised then-Gov. Jeb Bush that renovation of the old courthouse was still under consideration, even though the court had already hired a consultant for a new building. Lawmakers on the House floor called the 2007 amendment allowing the $33.5 million courthouse bond issue a mere "glitch."
• Both U.S. Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, a former House speaker, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state senator, were deeply involved in the 2007 and 2008 appropriations that made the 110,000-square-foot courthouse possible. That is contrary to each man's assertions during this fall's campaigns that the courthouse was someone else's priority.
• Judges — in conduct most unbecoming — discussed using their influence with the Tallahassee City Commission and the St. Joe Co. (which owned the property) to obtain the variances needed. And while state courts were forced to cut costs due to the recession, the 1st DCA never ceded any of its ambitions for the building.
Now Hawkes and others are awaiting an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which has the power to discipline or remove judges. And legislative leaders have been slow to respond to the bigger question of how to keep such an outrage from happening again. Among ideas worth exploring: a cooling-off period for amendments with significant fiscal impact — such as the $33.5 million bond for the courthouse; and more authority for the Department of Management Services to stand up to other government entities — the antithesis of the current Republican leaders' plans. As an outsider, Gov.-elect Rick Scott also should offer fresh ideas to improve transparency.
Meaningful reforms that prevent such a gross waste of public money would be one positive result. Otherwise, the courthouse 1st DCA Judge Brad Thomas once contended must be grand enough to reflect "the dignity of the rule of law" will just be a monument to the arrogance of power.