State Agrees To Pay Hefty ‘Taj Mahal’ Courthouse Art Contract

BILL KACZOR,Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida may pay more than $500,000 to a pair of contractors to resolve a dispute over artwork for a new appellate courthouse, officials said Tuesday.

The $48.8 million structure, which opened about two years ago in Tallahassee, has been criticized for being too expensive and too opulent, including private kitchens and bathrooms for each judge, massive columns inside and out as well as the lavish use of granite, etched glass and African mahogany trim. Critics dubbed it a “Taj Mahal.”

The agreement, which is subject to approval by a legislative budget panel, also would end a lawsuit between the Department of Management Services, which is overseen by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Management Services sued Atwater after he refused to pay the contractors for about 400 large, framed historic photos for the 1st District Court of Appeal building.

“It was right to ask for a rigorous and thorough review of the tax dollars committed to this project,” Scott said in a statement released by his office.

“CFO Atwater and I agree that the settlement will best safeguard taxpayer money while also signaling to all Floridians that our contracting system must be cost-effective, accountable and transparent,” Scott said in a statement.

The settlement will pay $392,658 remaining on the state’s bill for the photos and $122,224 for legal expenses to Peter Brown Construction and Signature Art Gallery.

Atwater said the photos would exceed the state’s $100,000 per building limit on artwork. The appellate court and Management Services argued the photos were wall coverings rather than art so were not covered by the legal limit.

In its lawsuit, Management Services argued that Atwater unfairly stacked the deck against the department by appointing his own officer to hold a fact-finding hearing before disallowing the payment. The department contended he should have referred the case to the independent Division of Administrative Hearings.

Atwater said both he and Management Services are committed “to guarantee that such excesses will not be repeated” and that they agree “it is appropriate for the Legislature to determine the legitimacy of the payment request.”

The flap over the courthouse contributed to the resignation of District Judge Paul Hawkes nearly a year ago. It ended an ethics case against Hawkes that included allegations related to the building project.

Hawkes, a former lawmaker, was accused of having the project’s manager removed for questioning its cost and taking actions that exceeded legislative intent regarding the building’s construction.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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