Lawmaker asks House speaker to consider impeachment judges for roles in 'Taj Mahal' courthouse

Editorial Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published April 18, 2011

TALLAHASSEE A House Committee should consider impeaching 1st District Court Judges Paul Hawkes and Brad Thomas for their role in building a new courthouse critics call a "Taj Mahal," says Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Plantation.

In a letter sent to House Speaker Dean Cannon on Friday, Sands said the speaker should appoint a committee to consider impeachment of the two judges who lobbied for appropriations and a bond issue to build the $50 million courthouse while lawmakers were cutting budgets for everyone else.

Hawkes and Thomas and others at the court managed to get a $35.5 million bond issue buried in a transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session and used their influence to intimidate officials at the Department of Management Services who were in charge of planning and construction.

Sands said he has reviewed an audit of the project and believes the finding of impropriety can be tied directly to Hawkes and Thomas. In addition to the role they played in getting taxpayer funds for the lavish building that opened in December, the judges accepted a free trip to Michigan from Peter R. Brown Co., the construction manager hired by the Management Services Department.

"In my mind this would constitute an illegal gratuity which I believe is outside the scope of their judicial role, and which could potentially constitute at least a misdemeanor in office," Sands wrote.

Florida's Constitution authorizes the House to consider impeachment for any judge for misdemeanors committed in office. The House speaker has the power to appoint a committee to investigate charges. It would take a two-thirds vote of the 120-member House to impeach a judge who would then be suspended until after a trial in the 40-member Senate.

"I believe we as elected officials have the obligation to our constituencies to further investigate these initial reports and claims," Sands wrote.

Cannon did not immediately respond to questions about the letter. In a Legislature controlled by Republicans, it is unlikely that the leadership would pursue impeachment of two judges appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, at the request of Democrats.

After the St. Petersburg Times disclosed details of the courthouse project last year, Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Canady asked the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission to investigate the judges, but the commission has yet to take public action.

Investigations by the JQC remain secret unless they result in formal charges against a judge. The commission can recommend disciplinary action or removal by the Supreme Court. The commission was created in the 1960s so the state could discipline judges without using the more costly and time-consuming impeachment process, but both remedies remain a part of state law.

The new courthouse has sparked outrage by citizens and public officials alike. And lawmakers are considering several bills that would force the appellate court to share the building with other court employees or turn it over in its entirety to the Supreme Court.

Justice Canady also has approved new rules that prohibit all state judges from independent lobbying expeditions without Supreme Court approval.

Judges at the court have largely remained silent when faced with accusations but Hawkes and Thomas appeared before a Senate committee in January to respond to questions. Both judges issued an apology of sorts but committee Chairman Mike Fasano accused the two judges of being neither honest nor straightforward.

Hawkes and Thomas did not respond to a request for comment.