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A Times Editorial

More dirt under new carpets at 'Taj Mahal'

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's eye-opening audit of the $48 million "Taj Mahal" courthouse shows stunning lapses by the Florida agency charged with overseeing state construction projects. It also exposes a group of politically connected judges who pushed aside any barrier — legal, ethical or otherwise — to secure a palatial new home built to their lavish tastes.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady on Tuesday wisely heeded Sink's call for the courts' inspector general to investigate. Gov. Charlie Crist should do the same and order an inquiry by his inspector general. And the Judicial Qualifications Commission must investigate the judges involved. That is a beginning, but it should not be the end. The more that is learned about this monstrosity, the more dirt there is under the new carpet.

The future home for the 1st District Court of Appeal is nearing completion 6 miles from the state Capitol in Tallahassee. It was an obsession of Chief Judge Paul Hawkes and others on the court. They exerted pressure in two directions — lobbying the Legislature for money and browbeating the Department of Management Services to win effective control over design and construction decisions.

According to auditors with the state Department of Financial Services, the 1st DCA "viewed itself as the equitable owner of the project and exercised direct control of DMS and the various contractors." What was the result of handing the taxpayers' checkbook to a group of judges? Millions of dollars in extras, including etched glass, African mahogany — 20 miles' worth — and extensive use of granite trim. A project initially estimated to cost $31.7 million is now costing more than $48 million, much of that funded by debt. This at a time when the state is cutting jobs and programs, including the courts, due to shrinking revenues.

Safeguards in state law that ensure taxpayers are getting the best price were ignored, the audit showed. Competitive bidding procedures were abandoned. Peter R. Brown Construction Inc. was awarded the contract using a negotiated fee-guaranteed maximum price method. But construction began months before a "guaranteed maximum price" was established.

Generally these and other violations of state law and administrative rules were the fault of DMS. But the auditors found clear evidence in e-mail exchanges that powerful judges like Hawkes, a former Republican state representative and legislative staffer, were pulling the strings. For instance, a DMS project manager was supposed to monitor the project daily concerning all aspects of design and construction. But auditors found it was Hawkes, not the project manager, who was listed as the agency contact person if another state office had questions about the contract.

The audit also uncovered that DMS bypassed state rules to finance extras. For example, the agency directly bought the materials used in the project to avoid the payment of sales tax, an allowable exemption. But rather than return the $589,000 in savings to taxpayers, DMS put the money into a contingency fund that could be spent on the project at its own discretion.

The state Constitution says that all judges "shall devote full time to their judicial duties." Nowhere does that include lobbying for or supervising the construction of a new courthouse that Florida taxpayers could not afford.

More dirt under new carpets at 'Taj Mahal' 10/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 7:01pm]
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