Good for Alex Sink. Florida's chief financial officer is ordering a thorough audit of the new courthouse under construction in Tallahassee for the 1st District Court of Appeal, dubbed the "Taj Mahal" due to its cost and luxury appointments. A preliminary review suggests part of the $48 million for construction was obtained by raiding the state's Workers' Compensation Trust Fund, which merits further inquiry. Taxpayers need to know every detail about how this ostentatious new courthouse was funded and whether any state laws were violated in the process. It's already a monument to cozy relationships at the state capital and how they often outweigh fiscal restraint or responsibility toward Florida taxpayers. This audit cannot stop the courthouse, but it can better safeguard money that is being spent.
Since St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan detailed the evolution of this palatial building, the Republican legislative leaders with their fingerprints all over it have been pointing away from themselves. U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio was House speaker when money for the new courthouse was approved. He claims that the project was a Senate, not a House, priority. That's not how everyone remembers it.
Intense lobbying for the building came from 1st District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Paul Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas — Republican insiders with friends in high places. Hawkes is a former legislator from Crystal River, and both men are former staff members for the Legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, who was chairman of the House committee that oversaw court expenditures, said after he refused to fund the courthouse, Hawkes and Thomas enlisted help from Richard Corcoran, then Rubio's chief of staff, and from Hawkes' son Jeremiah, who was Rubio's general counsel. Dean says that the decision about the money was left to Rubio and his budget chief, Rep. Ray Sansom, and the final budget included $7.9 million to start work on the building.
Rubio is campaigning for the Senate as a fiscal conservative, yet his tenure as House speaker features two huge taxpayer rip-offs that rewarded political friends and associates: One is the $6 million set aside by Sansom for an airplane hangar for a friend and political contributor. Sansom now faces grand theft charges for that arrangement. The other is this unnecessary and luxurious courthouse that was originally slated to provide each judge on the appellate court with a 60-inch flat screen television and individual kitchens — accoutrements that have disappeared since the public attention.
Sink's audit will examine the documents and financial records associated with the project, including the $35 million bond issued to fund construction. That was attached as an amendment by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, to a sizeable transportation bill and approved by lawmakers on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. Crist says he was just helping out then-Senate President Ken Pruitt. No one wants to claim responsibility for this boondoggle.
It's too late for taxpayers to get their money back, but it's not too late to hold lawmakers accountable. Hawkes and Thomas used their insider status to wring new million-dollar digs from friendly Florida leaders who then put the bill on taxpayers' credit card. The audit is good politics for Sink, the Democratic Party's nominee for governor. It also is sound public policy — and the sort of public vetting this project should have gotten before it was approved.