TAMPA — State Senate District 18 is an open seat in a closely divided district, so it's no surprise that the race has inspired some hardball attack ads — or that the truthfulness of those claims is being challenged.
Here's a sample:
• TV commercial: Candidate "profits from government waste and abuse" in connection with the infamous "Taj Mahal" courthouse project in Tallahassee.
• Mailer: Same candidate "sued to force the wasteful spending to continue" on the Taj Mahal.
• Mailer: Same candidate's law firm charged school district "for work that wasn't needed" and "took money that should have been spent on our kids."
Each is the product of a GOP legislative leadership committee, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, that supports House Majority Leader Dana Young. The TV ad includes a statement that Young, a Republican from South Tampa, approved the message.
And each targets Democratic candidate Bob Buesing, a longtime attorney with the Tampa-based Trenam law firm.
Buesing said the ads are misleading, distort events and misquote the news articles they cite as documentation. If anything, he said, they tell voters more about Young than him.
"Pretty desperate," Buesing said. "It's clear Dana Young is very, very concerned I'm going to win this race and … does not have a legitimate argument attacking my integrity. So she's had to concoct these really silly arguments."
The Taj Mahal mailer
Few projects in recent Florida history are as notorious as the "Taj Mahal," a $48 million effort to build a new courthouse for the state's 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
It dates back to the last day of the 2007 legislative session, when then-Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, added an amendment to a 142-page transportation bill to allow the court to float a $33.5 million bond issue for a new courthouse — something the state had never done before. The project was pushed by Paul Hawkes, then the chief judge of the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Two years later, the state Department of Management Services told judges they could spend up to $100,000 on art at the building. Instead, they arranged to buy 379 historic photos of North Florida scenes to be framed and hung in the new courthouse. The total cost: $357,000.
After the project's history was uncovered by Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan, state auditors concluded the 1st District Court of Appeal had spent too much in violation of state law and refused to authorize payment. The art gallery that supplied the historic photos sued both the state and the general contractor, whose lawyer was Buesing. He said he worked to make sure the state honored its contract.
In 2013, the state agreed to settle the case for $514,884 — two-thirds to the gallery, the rest to resolve the construction manager's fee, plus pay outstanding project costs, storage, court costs and other expenses. On the recommendation of Gov. Rick Scott, the settlement was approved by 13 senators and representatives on a legislative budget commission, nine of whom were Republicans.
This is how the mailer describes what happened: "A contractor bilked taxpayers out of $514,882 for framing photographs to be hung in a new courthouse so elaborate it was nicknamed the Taj Mahal. When taxpayer watchdog groups cried foul, Bob Buesing sued to force the wasteful spending to continue."
The mailer juxtaposes a photo of Buesing with the phrase "violates state law," which was taken from a 2011 Tampa Bay Times article. That article did not mention Buesing. Instead, it said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater was "trying to determine what the state should do where a vendor has entered into a contract in good faith expecting to be paid for work — but that work violates state law."
The mailer also quotes a 2010 Times editorial describing the project as a "monument to self-entitlement, insider dealing and the abuse of power — all at taxpayer expense." But that editorial did not mention the photographs, the gallery or Buesing. Instead, it was focused on the judges and legislators behind the project, including Crist and then-U.S. Sen.-elect Marco Rubio.
In a statement released through her campaign, Young said she hopes Buesing explains "why he thought it was appropriate to defend a gross waste of taxpayer money while pocketing his share of it in legal fees."
Buesing said Young is selective in her criticism and that the attack ads are "a false, bogus misrepresentation." He said he had nothing to do with ordering the photos or appropriating the money for them. And it was the art gallery, with a lawyer from another firm, that sued the state and his client over not being paid for the photos.
"What I did was my job — appropriately, professionally and well for my small-business client," he said. "If there's any disappointment by the taxpayers about this money being spent, they should lay that at the feet of the Republican Legislature that appropriated the money for this project."
The Manatee County school district mailer
A second mailer from the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee cites a 2012 article from the Sarasota-Herald Tribune.
Trenam had been hired to help the Manatee County school district investigate how it overspent its budget by $8 million in a year. The School Board's attorney told the newspaper that Trenam attorneys billed for work that went beyond what the School Board authorized them to do.
The mailer said, "when Senate candidate Bob Buesing's law firm charged the school district for work that wasn't needed, it cost us all." It also included this sentence, attributed to the Herald-Tribune: "Buesing law firm billed the district almost $39,000."
The newspaper actually said Trenam billed the district. It did not mention Buesing. But Erin Isaac with the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee said that as a shareholder and leader in Trenam, Buesing profited from the actions of the entire 80-lawyer firm.
Buesing, then the co-head of Trenam's commercial litigation department, said he had nothing to do with the matter, which was handled by another lawyer in a different office.
In the end, according to Buesing and district records, the school district paid Trenam in full without challenging the bill, seeking a discount or complaining to any outside body about the firm's work.
"Is this the best she's got?" Buesing said. "I think we have in Dana Young a candidate who's not communicating honestly with the voters."