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A Times Editorial

Don't sweep courthouse scandal under the rug

The two appellate judges most closely tied with the building of the opulent "Taj Mahal" courthouse in Tallahassee apologized Wednesday, and the Florida Senate president suggested it is time to move on. But Republican legislative leaders — whose predecessors conspired with the judges to create this scandal — cannot sweep it under the rug.

There is plenty left to explore behind the building of the new 1st District Court of Appeal. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, state Sen. Mike Fasano and the Judicial Qualifications Commission should keep asking questions and demanding answers. Taxpayers have paid for this self-aggrandizing palace, and the executive and legislative branches were manipulated. Someone needs to be held accountable, and reforms should be enacted to better guard against such misuse of public money.

Wednesday marked the first time that lawmakers formally discussed how a cadre of self-important judges — aided by powerful Republican lawmakers who have since left office — hijacked the state fiscal process from 2006 to 2008 to build a lavish, 110,000-square-foot facility south of Tallahassee with borrowed money that will take taxpayers 30 years to repay.

Judge Paul Hawkes, considered the driving force behind the project, appeared resolute Wednesday. But when pressed to recall e-mails he'd sent, he claimed no recollection. That was hardly plausible for a former legislative aide and gubernatorial staffer whose attention to detail in the project has been so well documented in public records — from what furniture to buy to whether to use asphalt for the parking lots.

Hawkes' slippery defense, along with that of Judge Brad Thomas, added to the sense that this taxpayer abuse has not been fully vetted. It came less than a week after Atwater, within days of taking office, announced he found evidence that some of the bills appeared to have been intentionally mislabeled to disguise the purchase of 60-inch flat screen televisions for the judges' chambers costing $6,000 each. The discovery — which may indicate a violation of state purchasing law — prompted a pledge by Atwater to review every single outstanding bill on the project.

But it was clear Wednesday that Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos wished Atwater and Fasano, R-New Port Richey, would drop the whole thing. Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters the Legislature had learned its lesson. Really? There's been not a single reform in the wake of this scandal.

At least Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady is proposing new rules for judges' interactions with the Legislature to avoid such renegade operations again. Fasano, much to the Senate president's chagrin, is suggesting that the Senate adopt rules requiring a 72-hour cooling-off period before any bill with a significant fiscal impact comes for a final vote, just as is required on the state budget. Meanwhile, the JQC is exploring the nature of the cozy relationship between Hawkes and Thomas and the Peter R. Brown Construction Co., the lead contractor for the courthouse.

That's a start. But to restore the public trust, Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon need to encourage more scrutiny of what happened and recommend more reforms. Otherwise, they're just part of the problem.

Don't sweep courthouse scandal under the rug 01/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 7:27pm]
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