Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, sent invitations late Tuesday to a handful of judges, officials, and contractors associated with the recently completed 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee — asking them to testify before a state Senate committee in January.
Fasano, who chairs the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, toured the courthouse earlier this month and did not hide his objection to the lavish nature of the $49 million building designed in the likeness of the Michigan Supreme Court, which opened to the public on Monday.
“I expected a Taj Mahal, and that’s exactly what I’ve seen,” Fasano told Florida Today. “It disgusts me. It’s extravagant.”
Summoned to appear before Fasano’s committee in January are Judge Paul Hawkes, who stepped down as Chief Justice last month amid controversy surrounding the project, Judge Brad Thomas, Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South and State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner. An invitation will also be extended to the construction manager overseeing the contract with Peter G. Brown, Inc.
Hawkes and Thomas, both former legislative staffers who also worked on Gov. Jeb Bush’s budget staff, led a lobbying campaign over several years to raise money for the $48.8 million project. The bulk of the money came from a $33.5 million bond issue authorized in a transportation bill on the final day of the 2007 legislative session.
Fasano toured the building earlier this month and was “disgusted” with the abuse of taxpayer funds. He said he wants to hear testimony that might help legislators prevent a repeat. Fasano has also suggested giving the structure to the Florida Supreme Court or forcing the district court to share office space with the court system’s administrative staff, now housed in rental quarters at a cost of about $300,000 a year.
The new 1st DCA building has been mired in criticism since the Times first broke news of the project, which had managed to slip under the radar of the media and lawmakers alike for years. Outgoing CFO Alex Sink commissioned an audit of the courthouse in late August, releasing a report six weeks later that found 17 violations of Florida statutes regarding the planning and construction of the building, which is located six miles south of the capital in Southwood.
The building has been likened to the Taj Mahal by critics who insist that the judges who had both lobbied for and insisted on being involved with the design process went too far by commissioning miles of African mahogany, granite countertops, individual bathrooms complete with sound-proofing, 60-inch flat-screen televisions, private kitchens, an exercise room and a gymnasium.
Fasano told the Florida Bar News:
“I don’t have the authority to punish anyone, but I can get the information out and let the taxpayers know what transpired and why, and make it very clear that this will never happen again under our watch,” he said.
“To me, from the outside, it looks that any supreme court justice in any state could only dream about having this as their office. It really looks like a Taj Mahal. Why would we use taxpayer money to build a facility like this when it could have been built much differently at a lot less cost to the taxpayers?”
Lucy Morgan, the Times correspondent who originally broke the story, recently laid out an extremely detailed timeline of the ‘Taj Mahal’ project from its inception as a innocent expansion of the current 1st DCA building to the opulent courthouse that will begin hearing cases Jan. 5. The article demonstrates how Judge Hawkes shrugged off criticism leveled by officials concerned that the project did not only have a massive up-front cost, but was sticking taxpayers with the bill for both the building’s cost and its rent for 30 years. At that point, the bonds sold to the finance the project will have cost Floridians $73 million.
Feb. 17,  Supreme Court conference
Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince summons Hawkes, seeking an explanation of how the court gave up a rent-free building and committed the state to spend annual rent of $1.6 million without consulting the court’s budget authorities. She also asks how the court can justify taking the money from the workers comp trust fund.
A few days later, in an e-mail to State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner, Hawkes jokes about Quince’s summons: “I will just tell them that Lisa did it, and I know nothing about it.”
The Times also notes, interestingly, that no minutes were recorded from the meeting last month in which Judge Hawkes stepped down from his post as Chief Justice.
Nov. 19,  1st DCA clerk letter to Florida Supreme Court
The clerk reports that Hawkes stepped down as chief and Judge Robert T. Benton II was elected in his place. The judges, who rule on public records law violations, keep minutes of their meetings, but this time — when an election was held — they say nothing was written down.