Marco Rubio, son of working class immigrants, Republican US Senate candidate and, of course, a hero, is facing questions stemming from spending decisions made during his reign as Speaker of the Florida House.
In 2007 while courageously leading the Florida House of Representatives, Rubio somehow found the time to become a true hero to a bereft group of judges who really really needed a new courthouse. A Taj Mahal courthouse.
Scheduled to be completed in November, it’s a $48 million behemoth in which each judge will get a 60-inch LCD flat screen television in chambers (trimmed in mahogany), a private bathroom (featuring granite countertops) and a kitchen (complete with microwave and refrigerator).
How did it get funded? Like many things that gain life in Tallahassee, the courthouse grew out of a last-minute amendment on the last day of a legislative session. The funding for the courthouse was buried in the middle of a 142-page transportation bill, approved the last day of the 2007 session.
The state had never floated a bond issue to build a courthouse, but Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa attached the amendment that allowed the court to float a $33.5 million bond issue.
Several legislators say they were not aware the courthouse amendment was in the transportation bill when they voted on it.
Former Rep. Lorrane Ausley of Tallahassee voted against the bill, but she says she did not know about the amendment that was added to build the courthouse in her hometown.
“It was safer to vote no on things like that given the lack of transparency on stuff like this,” Ausley said last week. “I do recall that the judges worked the halls pretty hard. I don’t think the Legislature ever intended something like this.”
That bond issue didn’t quite cover all the extras so $16 million was taken from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund.
Now Rubio, ever the bashful type, has refused to take credit for this kind hearted deed. In fact,
Rubio said Wednesday the proposal for the courthouse, which has been criticized as too luxurious in a time of severe budget constraints, originated in the Senate, not the House, which he controlled; and that it wasn’t the Legislature’s job to scrutinize building plans.
Asked about the courthouse in an interview with the Tampa Tribune editorial board, Rubio, said, “That specific spending priority emerged from the Senate.”
He said funding courts is “a core governmental function,” but, “How that money is spent and what it’s spent on is not what the Legislature does. The Legislature doesn’t approve architectural plans, it doesn’t approve purchasing orders.”
In other parts of the interview, Rubio emphasized his commitment to cutting government spending and eliminating earmarks.
The courthouse is being built on the outskirts of Tallahassee for the state 1st District Court of Appeal at a time when state courts are laying off employees and making do with inadequate or dilapidated quarters because of budget cuts.
State Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Ocala, then chairman of the House council on law enforcement and courts, has been quoted in news reports as saying the project was pushed through at the request of two politically influential judges with connections to two Rubio aides. Dean couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
And it turns out that Dean may be on to something, for despite his protestations to the contrary, Rubio has been named as a “hero” by the very judges for who were elevated from mere mortals overseeing innocuous courtrooms to Hela Judges in charge of the Taj Fucking Mahal! Bitches!
Since the story first broke about the palatial new courthouse being built in Tallahassee, the former House speaker has said it was a Senate priority, and he couldn’t even remember the money being appropriated to build it.
But now the St. Petersburg Times has obtained an e-mail circulated among the judges on the courthouse building committee that identifies the “heroes” in delivering the money to build it.
Among them, the e-mail identifies a select few who were “especially helpful,” including Rubio.
“I have never heard of this list” of heroes, Rubio said this week.
Dated April 29, 2008, the e-mail exchanged by judges on the building committee and court staffers encouraged them to personally thank those who helped secure the funding.
Rubio, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, has repeatedly said the courthouse was a Senate project and the House knew nothing about the architectural plans. He said it was part of the last-minute House and Senate give and take.
Rubio’s appropriations chairman, former Rep. Ray Sansom, remembers it differently.
He said 1st DCA Chief Judge Paul Hawkes frequently visited Sansom’s office to remind him the project was a priority of the speaker’s. As was Sansom’s practice whenever someone said he had the speaker’s backing, Sansom said he went to Rubio to make sure.
In an unrelated case, Sansom has been criminally charged with grand theft in connection with a $6 million appropriation in the 2007 budget for a friend’s airplane hangar. He has denied wrongdoing, and his trial is scheduled for January.
Poor Boy – Rubio’s altruistic inner Cuban wants no part of the credit for this selfless accomplishment. Despite his status as Hero, he seeks no recognition- he’d probably prefer to be hiding out on a submarine.
But Rubio may go from hero to the grinder. Rye? Well, a Grand Jury could soon be asking questions about the Taj Mahal courthouse.
A grand jury in Leon County will hear a complaint next week about the controversial new courthouse being built in Tallahassee for the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs said Wednesday that he has received a complaint from a citizen who wants a grand jury to review the situation surrounding the courthouse.
Meggs said he will bring the case to the grand jury when it meets Wednesday.
Two years ago a complaint sent to Meggs about former state Rep. Ray Sansom prompted a grand jury not only to indict Sansom but to issue a scathing report of how the Legislature handled the 2007 budget. The report criticized a system that lets a handful of powerful lawmakers make multimillion-dollar decisions in secret.
The grand jury urged the Legislature to “clean up the process” and make Florida “an example to the nation as a state that works for the people and not the special interest of those who have money to influence the Legislature.”
It was in that same 2007 legislative session that the $33.5 million bond issue for the courthouse passed the Legislature as an amendment to a transportation bill.
Nothing like a good meaty scandal to chew on leading up to election day.