Monday afternoon Chief Financial Officer and Alex Sink announced that she has directed her Bureau of Auditing to perform a comprehensive audit of the funding for the new $48 million First District Court of Appeals courthouse, dubbed immediately as the "Taj Mahal."
The St. Pete Times Lucy Morgan, who broke the story earlier this month, writes today that a preliminary review indicates that a full third of the funds for the project were taken from the state's Workers Compensation Trust Fund, as well as from other sources not appropriated towards the building.
The juicy part of her story today is the suggestion by state Senator Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness, who says that the men who lobbied for the courthouse, 1st District chief judge Paul Hawkes and fellow judge Brad Thomas, told Dean they'd find the money somewhere after Dean told them that funding was tight; Dean says the two found help from two men associated with Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio:
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.
But there are denials:
Corcoran, now a Republican nominee for the House from Pasco County, has denied helping Hawkes and Thomas get the project funded. Rubio said the project was a Senate priority that was not controversial at the time, and he said it never would have passed had lawmakers known how the money would be spent.
Cheering Sink on yesterday for call for an audit is the woman who wants to succeed Sink as CFO, Tallahassee Democrat Loranne Ausley, who said,
I applaud CFO Alex Sink for her willingness to investigate the reckless spending of politicians like Senate President Jeff Atwater on the lavish, over-the-top Tallahassee Taj Mahal, said Loranne Ausley. As a former legislator and outspoken critic of Floridas closed door budgeting process, I understand the games politicians play with taxpayer money and thats why I have a plan to stop it on the front end through a more accountable budgeting process.
Like Bill McCollum before her, any high profile move that the CFO makes is subject to criticism that it's political in nature, and a way for Sink to snag headlines. But like McCollum's lawsuit against the federal government on health care reform, Sink is tapping into an issue that appears to be popular with Floridians - that is, finding out how such a gaudy building could be constructed with taxpayer dollars where there are higher needs for the state's court system.