I skipped over a press release yesterday (you get a lot of them in this business, so it’s easy to do) from the Florida CFO’s office. Usually these missives from Alex Sink’s day job contain important but not necessarily blogworthy items about Sink auditing this or reducing the cost to taxpayers of that. But this one should have gotten more attention.
CFO ALEX SINK TO AUDIT DEPARTMENT OF MANAGEMENT SERVICES COURTHOUSE CONTRACTS
TALLAHASSEE — Florida CFO Alex Sink announced today that she has directed her Bureau of Auditing to perform a comprehensive audit of the Department of Management Services’ fixed capital outlay project for the construction of the new First District Court of Appeals courthouse.
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.”
The release also includes the full text of Sink’s letter to Linda South, the secretary of Florida’s Department of Management Services.
Loranne Ausley, the Democrat hoping to replace Sink as CFO, applauded the move (and took the opportunity to pitch her “plan to clean up Tallahassee.”) But what’s it all about, and could the Taj Mahal fall on top of any actual politicians as its potential dirt gets excavated? Well, here’s the opening of the St. Pete Times’ story on the courthouse today:
TALLAHASSEE — A preliminary review of funding for the “Taj Mahal” courthouse indicates the 1st District Court of Appeal may have spent money initially appropriated for other purposes and got $16 million in a raid on the state’s Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said Monday.
In letters to the Florida Supreme Court and to the agency that oversees construction of state buildings, Sink said the troubling preliminary findings warrant a thorough audit.
Legislative approval of money for the $48 million project came after an intensive lobbying campaign by the 1st District’s chief judge, Paul Hawkes, and fellow Judge Brad Thomas, both former legislative staffers.
Sink said the audit will include a look at the $35 million bond issue used for the project, which legislators authorized on the last day of the 2007 session. The courthouse construction was an amendment to a lengthy transportation bill — an amendment many legislators say they were unaware of at the time.
Now, a key legislator has raised new questions about how that happened. Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, was chairman of the House committee that oversaw court expenditures. Dean says he rejected a plea from Hawkes and Thomas to fund the courthouse after Dean toured the existing courthouse. He said he rejected it because the state was slashing budgets, and he said the courts had more important needs than the construction of a new courthouse for the appellate court.
Dean said Hawkes and Thomas indicated they would go around him to get the funding they needed.
“He (Hawkes) just looked at me and grinned and said, ‘I got friends,’ ” Dean said.
Dean said the two judges had help from Richard Corcoran, then chief of staff for House Speaker Marco Rubio, and from Hawkes’ son Jeremiah, who was general counsel for Rubio.
In final budget negotiations that year, Dean said the decision about money for the courthouse was bumped up to then-Appropriations Chairman Ray Sansom and Rubio. The final budget included $7.9 million to begin planning and construction.
“The next thing I knew, they were going to build a building,” Dean said. He said he didn’t know about the last-minute bond issue amendment until he read about it this month in the St. Petersburg Times.
Rubio is pawning off responsibility for the project onto the Senate, saying it was their priority at the time. Corcoran, who you may remember as among the most beloved of Rubio’s “12 disciples,” as his Tallahassee crew called themselves during his speakership, which his devotees (to include Congressional candidate David Rivera) dubbed “Camelot.” During those heady years, Corcoran, who’s now running for the State House himself, was paid $175,000 as chief of staff, and arranged the lavish travel and upscale lifestyle that Rubio fully enjoyed at the time, courtesy of donors to the Republican Party of Florida. He of course denies any funny business in the Taj Mahal project.
But the project has all the earmarks of Rubio-era “Camelot” — 60-inch flat screen TVs and kitchen appliances designated for each of 18 judge’s suites (though only 15 are currently seated), and palatial accommodations for the jurists at a time when judges around the state are laying off hundreds of employees and scrimping on money to buy updated law books.
It’s another example of the posh lifestyle and atmosphere of entitlement that ruled Tallahassee in the Rubio era. Rubio is now running for the United States Senate as a “fiscal conservative.”
UPDATE: the Dems waste no time pouncing. Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party is passing the SPTimes story around with this intro (the first reference is to the scandal that took down Rubio’s former budget chief Ray Sansom):
$6 million for a hangar here, $48 million for ‘Taj Mahal’ courthouse there… I guess no one should be surprised Speaker Rubio likes to talk about government waste all the time, since he certainly is an expert in the issue.