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Florida CFO Jeff Atwater must testify in 'Taj Mahal' case

Published Nov. 28, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater will have to answer questions under oath in a lawsuit filed by the owner of a Tallahassee art gallery that was never paid for framed photographs valued at more than $357,000 for the new 1st District Court of Appeal.

Attorneys for Atwater asked Leon Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis to prohibit lawyers for Signature Art Gallery and Peter R Brown Construction Co. of Clearwater from questioning Atwater saying he is a constitutional officer who cannot be forced to testify. But Francis ruled he must testify.

Michael H. Davidson, lawyer for Atwater, indicated he will appeal the judge's decision and seek a delay in any attempt to question Atwater.

A three-day nonjury trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 17.

Atwater refused to approve payment for the 369 photos selected by judges at the appellate court building many have dubbed a "Taj Mahal.'' The historic photos include scenes from watermelon festivals, greased pig contests and other events in North Florida.

The decision left Mary Maida, owner of the gallery, with custom framed photos in climate-controlled rented storage as lawyers for Atwater, the construction company, the gallery and the Department of Management Services wage a prolonged legal battle that began in 2010 after state auditors questioned the expenditure.

Robert H. Buesing, the Tampa lawyer who represents the contractor, contends Atwater should answer questions about statements he made during his 2010 campaign and shortly after he took office.

"I seek to show it wasn't an impartial decision,'' Buesing argued Tuesday. "I haven't been able to get at Atwater's thought process when this was the No. 1 issue in his campaign. Nobody else in the department can shed light on the campaign.''

Francis said he is anxious to settle the "unique and difficult case'' and believes the contractor and gallery have a right to question whether any bias caused Atwater to refuse paying the bill.

"This issue has gotten pretty heated,'' Francis added. "I'm concerned that a person who did the work as requested might be caught in this.''

The court's former chief judge, Paul M. Hawkes, resigned this year after being charged with misconduct for his role in the courthouse construction. Hawkes and other judges at the court lobbied state lawmakers for the $50 million project financed in part with a $35 million bond issue approved as part of a transportation bill in the closing hours of the 2007 legislative session.