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A Times Editorial

Marco Rubio must be frank about the "Taj Mahal" courthouse

Marco Rubio has a terrible memory or an aversion to telling the truth. Neither trait is desirable in a candidate for U.S. Senate. Despite mounting evidence that he was a driving force behind a ridiculously expensive new courthouse in Tallahassee, the former state House speaker insists he is as surprised as anyone by this monstrosity. He needs to tell voters what really happened — or perhaps a grand jury will do it for him.

The $48 million courthouse being built for the 1st District Court of Appeal is a monument to the Legislature's hypocrisy. While Rubio and his Republican colleagues preached fiscal responsibility in 2007, they quietly approved the money to build this palace at the behest of some of the judges who will move into it. The Miami Republican is stonewalling by first claiming ignorance and then blaming others.

The "Taj Mahal" courthouse has been under construction for months, but only recent reporting by the Times' Lucy Morgan has uncovered how such an indefensible project moved through the Legislature. There was $7.9 million included in the 2007-08 budget — and a suspicious authorization of a $33.5 million bond issue in an unrelated bill approved on the last day of the 2007 session. The chances something of this magnitude would be approved without the House speaker's endorsement are slim to none.

Yet Rubio cannot get his story straight. He first said in August that he didn't recall the project. Then his campaign blamed the state Senate, where the bond issue was added to a transportation bill that was then approved by the House. Then Rubio said he was aware of the project and tried to shift attention to Gov. Charlie Crist, who signed the budget and the transportation bill into law. Now Crist is running against Rubio as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate, but Rubio cannot run away from this mess.

In fact, the court's building committee circulated an e-mail in 2008 that identified "heroes" for their project. It lists Rubio as one of four lawmakers who were "especially helpful.'' And fellow Republicans are in no mood to corroborate Rubio's excuses. State Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa says he sponsored the amendment for the bond issue at the direction of Senate President Ken Pruitt. But Pruitt says he did no such thing, and other lawmakers say the deal would not have been passed without the speaker's approval.

Most revealing: Former Rep. Ray Sansom, who was Rubio's appropriations chairman, said Rubio told him several times that he supported the project. Sansom also said 1st DCA Chief Judge Paul Hawkes frequently reminded him the courthouse was a priority for Rubio.

This would be the same Ray Sansom who is charged with grand theft for inserting millions into the same state budget for an airplane hangar disguised as a community college building.

So the 2007 legislative session was a banner year for surprises: $48 million for an opulent courthouse and $6 million for an airplane hangar. All of this was while Rubio was House speaker, yet he claims his hands are clean and says he wants to go to Washington to rein in spending.

A grand jury indicted Sansom, who has pleaded not guilty. Now another grand jury will be asked next week whether it wants to examine the courthouse scandal. It's worth a look.

The outrage may not be that a crime was committed. The outrage may be that it was a legal waste of public money, and that powerful legislators like Marco Rubio quietly conspired to make it happen.

Marco Rubio must be frank about the "Taj Mahal" courthouse

09/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 6:58pm]
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