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OLD MIAMI COURTHOUSE IN USE DESPITE DECAY

All is not well with Miami's downtown federal courthouse complex. In fact, one of the buildings itself may be sick.

A new 14-story federal courthouse sits sparkling in the sunshine, surrounded by a chain-link fence, still unoccupied three years after it was supposed to open. Cost to U.S. taxpayers: $163-million so far, way beyond the original $100-million budget.

Across the street, in a historic limestone courthouse opened in 1933, possibly hazardous mold has taken root, raising questions about whether the fungus caused or contributed to a magistrate judge's unexpected death in September 2006 from a respiratory illness.

Cost to taxpayers: unknown, but potentially in the millions of dollars depending on how much work is required to eradicate gunk found throughout the three-story structure. The judge's children also may file a wrongful death lawsuit, depending on the results of a new expert analysis of the mold's health risks.

The mold is "a huge, huge problem," attorney Alan Goldfarb said. His law firm represents the children of late Magistrate Judge Theodore Klein, 66, who had been in good health.

Miami's federal court has long been one of the nation's busiest. Its recent high-profile criminal cases include the trial of al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla and the fraud conviction of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The heavy caseload led Congress in 1998 to approve construction of the new courthouse. Yet a series of costly delays has plagued the project.

The inability to open the new courthouse effectively means more people have had to work longer in the old courthouse.

Goldfarb and fellow attorneys Liah Catanese and Justin Leto along with a team of environmental experts spent three days in early February checking for mold throughout the building.

Mold, mold spores, water damage and peeling paint are apparent on all three floors and the basement, including the area once occupied by Klein, according to preliminary findings. It will take two or three weeks to determine the type of mold and whether is it hazardous.

Previous studies have also found elevated levels of mold in some places. One study, commissioned in 2006 after Klein became ill, suggested that his sickness "could be attributed to exposure to molds."

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