Back in October, TheSunshineStateNews did this interview with then-CFO candidate Jeff Atwater on the subject of the 'Taj Mahal' Courthouse in Tallahassee, who asked why Alex Sink, then the Florida CFO and Democratic nominee for governor, didn't raise red flags about its costs and instead just signed the checks.
See also: http://www.sunshinestatenews.com/ and
Following-up on her excellent reporting of three weeks ago on the new First District Court of Appeals Courthouse in Tallahassee -Florida's state capital for those of you reading this post overseas- which I commented upon here in a December 19th post I titled, with mock humor, Lucy Morgan in St. Pete Times: Why can't anyone remember how a $50-million courthouse now called the 'Taj Mahal' stayed off the radar and got okayed?
http://hallandalebeachblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/lucy-morgan-in-st-pete-times-why-cant.html on Saturday, Lucy Morgan of the St. Petersburg Times actually outdid her earlier piece.
She gave readers and observers of all things political in Florida, the shady and the legit, a real bracing wake-up call by giving us a knowing description of what's what in the new Home Sweet Home for the elite judicial set. About the only thing missing are duvets, a private wine cellar and Swedish au pairs to help their kids after school with homework, otherwise, it's all there.
More comments after the article.
St. Petersburg Times
Atwater: Taj Mahal courthouse 'far worse' than a pricey building
By Lucy Morgan, Times Senior Correspondent
In Print: Saturday, January 8, 2011
TALLAHASSEE — State auditors are questioning more than $1 million in bills submitted for the new $50 million courthouse built by the 1st District Court of Appeal.
"This is one of the great embarrassments for Florida government,'' new Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said of the building derided as Florida's Taj Mahal. "The audacity and arrogance that was displayed in doing this and their continuing effort to hide the ball has been a complete disservice to hardworking Floridians who deserve better from public officials.''
The day after Atwater was sworn into office this week, he was briefed by auditors who now work for him. He said he will personally inspect every outstanding bill and will allow no payment until he can determine what was purchased. His auditors are continuing an investigation that started under former CFO Alex Sink.
"I now believe it is far worse than just an expensive building,'' Atwater said.
Some of Atwater's questions surround apparent attempts by the court to buy big screen television sets and furnishings for the courthouse with the proceeds of a $33.5 million bond issue that taxpayers will repay over the next 30 years.
"I cannot imagine financing equipment for 30 years that will depreciate over the next three to five years,'' Atwater said.
A former Senate president, Atwater said he has completely lost confidence in the Department of Management Services, the state agency responsible for overseeing construction of the courthouse. Officials at DMS signed off on the questionable purchases the judges requested.
"I do not believe they (DMS) have been straight with the people of Florida, certainly not with our department,'' he said. "They have been disguising what they were trying to get us to sign off on — and I have only been here a day.''
In October the CFO's scathing audit of the project accused the judges of illegally taking control of planning and construction away from DMS and laid much of the blame on the lobbying of 1st DCA Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas.
Auditors are now questioning a number of bills submitted by DMS for Peter R. Brown Construction Co. and Black Box Network Services, the company providing telecommunications equipment to the court. Black Box billed the state $693,450 for services and electronics equipment but has yet to collect $571,105 due to questions raised by auditors.
A $113,450 bill approved by DMS Nov. 29 lists a series of change orders for Black Box installations with charges for "labor'' without details. One of the items listed as labor is for $58,699.01. That is exactly the amount listed on a Sept. 7 bill for 14 TV sets and a $17,364 "restocking fee'' for the return of 16 60-inch TVs.
The St. Petersburg Times obtained the September bill in a records request from DMS, but officials in Atwater's office say they have never seen the September bill and believe the more recent bill that listed the TVs as "labor'' was an attempt to hide what had been purchased.
When the Times asked for bills DMS paid for electronics or furnishings, DMS initially denied any such payments had been made. But when pressed to provide bills submitted by Black Box, the agency produced a copy of the September bill.
The judges originally planned to put a 60-inch flat screen in each of 16 judges' chambers but apparently returned the televisions after the Times reported in August on the courthouse's many luxuries. Auditors are also questioning the legality of the restocking fee Black Box requested.
Auditors say they can't immediately determine how many televisions the court is attempting to buy. They sent an inspector out to count after getting a bill for nine. The inspector found the nine sets, plus two more still in boxes. The court was paying $5,978 for each 60-inch television, $2,273 for 47-inch televisions and $3,325 for 52-inch televisions, far more than the price of similar-sized TVs at major electronic stores.
Internal memos indicate auditors could not determine what was being purchased in one December bill for $145,000. When they asked for additional documentation they discovered that $41,000 of the total was for the nine TVs.
Officials at DMS did not respond to detailed requests for comment on Friday.
First DCA marshal Stephen Nevels says the court has 27 televisions in the new building: nine 60-inch monitors; two 52-inch; seven 46-inch; three 42-inch; two 40-inch; and four 17-inch. Nevels said the court has not seen any of the bills that have been handled by DMS.
Atwater is trying to unravel other questionable expenditures. One involves the purchase of art for the new building, and vendors that DMS and the court authorized to provide services that exceed the $100,000 limit on art that state law says can be purchased for a new building.
One of those vendors is Signature Art Gallery, owned by Mary Maida, wife of Tallahassee lawyer Tom Maida. The gallery agreed to frame 400 historical photos in the new building at a cost of more than $357,000, money that was to be paid by construction manager Peter R. Brown. In addition the court has agreed to pay $72,000 for original paintings by seven Florida artists.
The framed photographs include scenes from the 32 counties in Florida's northern district: greased pig contests, tobacco farms, lighthouses, cotton pickers, Tarzan at Wakulla Springs and other historic scenes.
Auditors have refused to approve payment of the bill because it exceeds the $100,000 limit. Some at the court have argued that the photos are not art and should not be included in the amount state law allows for art when a new building is built.
The situation leaves Mrs. Maida, owner of a small gallery in northeast Tallahassee, with a huge unpaid bill. Her husband, a lawyer at Foley & Lardner, has written to lawyers in Atwater's office asking for copies of all records relating to the art.
He has not filed a lawsuit. "I hope we don't have to,'' Tom Maida said when asked about the debt. "We certainly believe she is entitled to be paid by the state.''
It will be up to Atwater to decide. He's 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.
Meanwhile Hawkes, chief judge during much of the construction project, and other officials involved in the project have been asked to appear before a Senate budget committee Wednesday to answer questions about the new courthouse. Thomas, the other judge who helped lobby for the project, also was invited. On Friday he notified the committee he will not appear.
"He had no problem coming to lobby for a $50 million courthouse, but now he can't come back to answer questions,'' said committee Chairman Mike Fasano.
Thomas did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
Lawmakers approved the money for the project and passed a $33.5 million bond issue that was tucked into an unrelated transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. They say they had no idea the judges planned to build such an elaborate building.
The 110,000-square-foot building houses the 1st District's 114 employees. Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady is working on plans to remodel part of the building to accommodate 50 to 60 state court administrative employees, who could move out of rented quarters and save the state about $300,000 a year.
Atwater said he cannot allow the problems with the new building to go unaddressed. "There are people at DMS who tried to stop this, at least tried to bring a level of thoughtful scrutiny to it and it may have cost them their jobs,'' he said.
"We should be championing those people.''
Lucy Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though the state was buying in quantity, newly released numbers show taxpayers did not get a break in buying electronics for the Taj Mahal courthouse.
$5,978 Price per 60-inch TV
$3,325 Price per 52-inch TV
$2,273 Price per 47-inch TV
$17,364 "Restocking fee'' for state to return of 16 60-inch TVs, more than $1,000 apiece
$357,000 Cost to frame some 400 historical photos, about $890 each
Source: Office of Chief Financial Officer
So, three weeks later. the lap of luxury in Tallahassee paid for by Florida taxpayers begins to get described in detail...
I can only imagine what a proposed new Broward County Courthouse -forced down the throats of protesting taxpayers- would be like with all the prima donna judges in this area.
That proposed County courthouse, adamantly opposed by the vast majority of Broward County's citizen taxpayers, but popular with the small clique of downtown Fort Lauderdale's business, legal and lobbying community, for reason that should be obvious, is an explosive subject I've written about many times, even while the Miami Herald has been positively obsequious and sycophantic in their news coverage, practically serving as a stenographer for the proponents of the plan.
See Commission Forgets People, Goes With Courthouse By Bob Norman, Tue., Feb. 2 2010 @ 6:20PM http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/pulp/2010/02/broward_county_courthouse.php
That great post, includes this gem:
Last year, Ritter created her own hand-picked "Broward County Courthouse Task Force" and installed her friend and fellow courthouse backer, Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, as the chairwoman.Wow!
Not surprisingly, the task force just came back with exactly what Ritter and Lieberman wanted: a recommendation to build a new courthouse without asking the permission of the public. The task force report also includes a convoluted half-baked plan to pay for it.
And Ritter and Lieberman are real cocky about it too, treating it all as a done deal. But you have to understand that Lieberman might have more than altruistic motives to rush this project forward. In 2005, she and lawyer husband Stuart Michelson, who serves as the Sunrise city attorney, bought an office suite close to the courthouse (at 800 SE Third Avenue) for $1.35 million.
I've discussed here how the so-called 'Courthouse Task Force' was intentionally stacked with supporters of the plan, not well-respected, open-minded community reps with no personal or professional conflicts.
No, that would have been too easy!
Instead, people selected for it had personal agendas from the beginning, and some even stood to profit from it in a manner that would not be ethically or legally acceptable with a similar proposal for any other building in this county.
In fact, the task force DIDN'T even follow the county's own rules and provide public information about their public meetings prior to them taking place, as the last meeting's agenda and related information were NOT posted to the county's website until many hours AFTER it was over.
Oversight or intentional?
In my letter to Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry complaining about these violations, I made the case for intentional by simply reciting the known facts, which were overwhelming.
And in case you forgot, the chair of that Broward County Courthouse Task Force, appointed by the Broward County Commission itself, was none other than Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, a woman who owns property near the proposed site in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Here are HBB links to past posts of mine on her ethics as well as this subject:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that's how things are DONE in Broward County, Florida, U.S.A. in the early years of the 21st century.
In broad daylight.
The mind literally reels at the excess just waiting for Broward taxpayers if a new county courthouse is built in the location favored by the powerful few and well-connected, who are mostly Secret Santas for each other, even if they don't personally celebrate Christmas.
What are friends for?
IF there ever is a brand-new courthouse in Broward, it needs to be on/near or adjacent to U.S.-1 so that a future FEC rail line commuter train station is close-by, and logic and reason actually enter the public planning conversation for a change.
If you aren't going to consciously locate venues that attract lots of foot traffic, like stadiums, arenas, shopping malls, govt. buildings like county courthouses or county HQ, near safe and well-designed mass transportation hubs to cut down on the number of vehicles on the roads, and create some positive business synergy and efficiency -and make everyone's life simpler while saving money on parking fees- what's the point in pretending there's any kind of logical, well thought- out County/regional transportation policy?
I don't know about you, but personally, I'm tired of pretending that myopic mediocrity in South Florida government planning is satisfactory.