TALLAHASSEE — Two judges made qualified apologies for their roles in the construction of an opulent $48.8 million courthouse that critics called a "Taj Mahal" during a tense legislative hearing Wednesday
First District Court of Appeal Judges Paul Hawkes and Bradford Thomas told Florida Senate's Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations that they were sorry.
The panel's chairman, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has been among the most vocal of the project's detractors, saying it wasted tens of millions of dollars. He derided the court complex as an "ugly mess" and the "epitome of arrogance."
But other committee members acknowledged the Legislature, too, was to blame for approving the project.
"The ultimate buck stops right here," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "We ought to be looking in the mirror."
The courthouse, which opened last month on Tallahassee's southeast side, includes such amenities as private soundproof bathrooms and kitchens for each of the 15 judges, miles of African mahogany trim, granite counter and desk tops, etched glass windows, a glass dome and massive columns inside and out.
"To the extent that any expenditures were made on this building and any construction done that exceeds the legislative intent and has offended you and this committee then I sincerely apologize," Thomas told Fasano.
"Don't apologize just to us, judge," Fasano snapped. "Apologize to every taxpayer in the state."
Thomas said that was his intent.
Hawkes similarly apologized for "any role that I've had that brought this project beyond legislative intent."
Fasano said he's known both judges for years as penny-pinching conservatives. Hawkes was a House member and both served as legislative staffers.
"Then you took the taxpayers' money and you went crazy," Fasano told them.
The interim head of the state agency that oversees building projects also took responsibility for letting the judges influence design and construction decisions but said no laws were broken.
The two judges took the lead in lobbying lawmakers for several years it took to get final approval, but Hawkes said it was then-Gov. Jeb Bush who pushed for a new facility. Bush contended it would be more economical than renovating the court's existing structure, Hawkes said.
The judge also reminded lawmakers it was the Legislature that decided to float a 30-year bond issue to finance it. Fasano complained the bond issue will push the building's total cost to more than $70 million including interest.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, thanked the judges for their apologies. Storms said she thought they'd been honest and didn't try to mislead the committee although she was still convinced they had abused their power.
Fasano, though, complained he didn't get straight answers and "saw a lot of dodging." He also pointed out Thomas agreed to appear only after he got a phone call from Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady.
State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner read a statement from Canady noting the justices forced Hawkes out as chief judge in November although he remains a member of the appeal court.
"Courthouses should be dignified, durable and functional," Canady wrote. "They should not be grandiose, monumental and luxurious."
Canady said he's also ordering Goodner's office to oversee such projects in the future. Some lawmakers, however, said that job should be left to building experts at Department of Management Services even though they were dissatisfied with the agency's performance in this case.
Fasano said he'd like to hold more hearings on the courthouse, but Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, later said it's time for the subcommittee to look to the future. That includes finding spending cuts needed to balance the next budget.
The project, though, remains under review by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which can ask the Supreme Court to discipline the judges for ethical or legal lapses.