'Taj Mahal' courthouse in Tallahassee roils legislators

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Lucy Morgan

Published January 29, 2011


Did one lawmaker tell another to stop looking into the controversial $50 million state courthouse in Tallahassee some have dubbed the `Taj Mahal'? Depends on whom you ask.

TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Mike Fasano says Senate President Mike Haridopolos ordered him earlier this month to drop further scrutiny of the lavish new courthouse critics call the "Taj Mahal.''

Haridopolos says he did no such thing.

The point-counterpoint developed after Fasano told the St. Petersburg Times that Haridopolos "made it clear he didn't want me to deal with this issue anymore. I was told to leave this issue alone.''

At a midday press availability Wednesday, Haridopolos was asked whether he ordered Fasano to end the investigation.

"I think the point has been made,'' Haridopolos told reporters. "I've asked Senator Fasano for recommendations based on his work.''

A reporter relayed those comments to Fasano, who said he was stunned.

Fasano said he was summoned to Haridopolos' office shortly after a Jan. 12 committee meeting of the Senate Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, which Fasano chairs.

Two judges from the 1st District Court of Appeal answered questions about their new $50 million courthouse, whose big screen TVs, private bathrooms and expensive paneling have drawn public outrage. Fasano said he believes the committee needs to further explore the issue, since he thinks Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas "lied'' to the committee.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said that if Haridopolos hadn't warned him off, "I'd be asking staff and the committee for recommendations.''

Later Wednesday afternoon, responding to follow-up questions from Times reporters, Haridopolos said he believes Fasano misunderstood him and is free to pursue any questions he has about the courthouse.

Haridopolos also said he thought Fasano had told him there was no need of further hearings on the courthouse.

"I did not ask him to end the meetings at all,'' Haridopolos insisted.

Given that, Fasano said late Wednesday, "I can assure you, I'm definitely going to pursue it now.

Haridopolos said he did tell Fasano he needs to focus on a budget that is likely to face severe cuts as the state figures out how to chop more than $3.5 billion out of its current spending plan.

Haridopolos said Gov. Charlie Crist should have fired Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South last year after state auditors said the agency let the judges take control of courthouse construction. Haridopolos said he hopes the new secretary appointed by Gov. Rick Scott will keep out-of-control spending from ever happening again.