Florida CFO and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink announced plans yesterday to audit the finances of the new First District Court of Appeals, currently in the final stages of construction about six miles from downtown Tallahassee in Southwood.

The $48 million courthouse, dubbed by some as Florida’s “Taj Mahal,” has been a hot-button issue since a St. Petersburg Times investigative piece earlier in the month uncovered details of the building’s last-minute approval as part of a 2007 transportation bill and the lavish nature of a building that boasts private judges’ chambers adorned with 60-inch flat-screen televisions, mahogany trim, kitchens with granite countertops and private bathrooms — at price tag of more than $425 per square foot to the taxpayer.

Following a St. Petersburg Times investigative piece that dubbed the project Florida’s ‘Taj Mahal,’ CFO Sink ordered a preliminary review of documentation to support payments for the project, which found cause for an audit. CFO Sink detailed plans for the audit in a letter to DMS Secretary Linda South today.

“As CFO, I have worked on behalf of Florida’s taxpayers to reform state contracting procedures to increase transparency and accountability,” said CFO Sink. “If the Legislature approved the spending of scarce state funds on palatial accommodations at a single courthouse, the people of Florida have a right to know how this situation came about and just how much it’s costing them.”

“She felt that the review raised more questions than answers,” Sink Press Secretary Jerri Franz tells The Florida Independent. “We want to reconcile and validate all the sources of funding for the project, including bond proceeds and other kinds of funding.”

“One of the questions we have is why are portions of the contract with the general contractor and the project architect paid out of [the Department of Management Services] and other payments are made by the office of the state courts administrator?” Franz continues. “To us, if this is a DMS building contract and these costs are to be a capitalized as part of the project, then DMS would be the one where the appropriations would be. There are questions about the payments, so we’re going to track that down and make sure it’s in compliance.”

Sink’s letter:

August 30, 2010

Ms. Linda South
Secretary
Florida Department of Management Services
4050 Esplanade Way
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0950

Dear Secretary South:

The Department of Financial Services has reviewed invoices and other documentation that raise questions regarding the First District Court of Appeals courthouse project.  It is my intent to audit the project as soon as possible to reconcile and validate all sources and uses of project funding, including bond proceeds and other state funding, and to determine whether the project is in compliance with applicable provisions of Florida Statutes. Pursuant to Section 17.03, Florida Statutes, I have directed the Bureau of Auditing of my Division of Accounting and Auditing to perform a comprehensive audit of the Department of Management Services’ fixed capital outlay project for construction of the new First DCA courthouse.

The audit will involve our examination of all documents and financial records associated with the project, including documents relating to bond issuance and sale; appropriations records; procurement documents; contracts; change orders;  project management reports; and all invoices tendered to support payments associated with construction of the project.   In order for us to complete the audit in a timely manner, I request your office collect all relevant documents and make them available to the auditors at the inception of the audit.

The audit will be led by Mark Merry, Bureau Chief of Auditing, and will be conducted by Bill Dubose, Financial Administrator.  Mr. Merry will contact your office to schedule an entrance conference this week with your staff.  We look forward to a positive and productive working relationship with you and your staff.  Please contact Mark Merry at (850) 413-3074 or mark.merry@myfloridacfo.com if you have questions.

Sincerely,

Alex Sink

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