With a new poll showing the gubernatorial race neck-and-neck, Democratic candidate Alex Sink released her findings of an audit detailing the construction of the First District Court of Appeal (DCA) building on the eastern outskirts of Tallahassee -- a building that she and others have labeled the Tallahassee Taj Mahal.
At a media event in the Capitol, the state CFO said the project has spiraled out of control -- costing taxpayers almost $50 million as judges demanded fine furnishings and the Division of Management Services (DMS) could not control spending.
While Sink admitted she has not seen any proof of illegal activity, she said the audit shows 17 findings at odds with current statues and practices.
She announced that she is sending a letter and a copy of the audit to Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Justice Charles Canady of the Florida Supreme Court, hoping their offices will examine the matter further.
I am transmitting a copy to each of you in your capacity as heads of the executive and judicial branches and I strongly urge you to turn this matter over to your inspectors general for further investigation of the failures outlines in this audit, wrote Sink. The audit findings strongly suggest that DMS officials acquiesced to actions by judges that were inconsistent with the prohibitions of Article V, Section 13 of the Florida Constitution that all justices and judges shall devote full time to their judicial duties.
DMS was bullied by some of the judges, insisted Sink. We should hold our judges to higher ethical standards.
Sink singled out Judge Paul Hawkes for special condemnation, saying that he lobbied the Legislature for more appropriations for the building.
She rapped DMS for not launching a competitive bid process and for knuckling under to demands of judges for better accommodations. She also took the Legislature to task for pulling $5.5 million from the Workers Compensation Trust Fund to help fund the construction.
Asked by Sunshine State News when she knew of the costs of the project, Sink replied that she learned of it through an article in the St. Petersburg Times, which ran Aug. 9. Sink announced the audit on Aug. 30 -- less than a week after she defeated Brian Moore for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Sink pointed to the lavish accommodations and said she had rejected $190,000 in charges for artwork. I wish I had the chance to reject payments for even more, she said.
Sink brought out a piece of imported African mahogany as an example of all that was wrong with the building, which is still being constructed. There are 20 miles of this mahogany in this building, she said.
Despite her focus on the court building, Sinks record as a fiscal watchdog is not going unchallenged.
On Monday, incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, sent a pointed letter to Sink as he looked to deflate her proposed budgetary plans.
As incoming Senate president, I'm concerned about Florida's economic outlook and the looming budget shortfall the Legislature will be required to address in the coming months," wrote Haridopolos. To that end, I have already taken the necessary steps to reduce our own staff's salary expenses in the Florida Senate by more than $1 million. As you know, I remain committed to leading by example to right-size government and create jobs in our state.
Noting that he had read Sinks economic proposals, Haridopolos added that he had problems with them.
I am greatly alarmed by a disturbing pattern of unsustainable spending proposals that you have put forward, he continued in the letter. Florida's Constitution requires the passage of a balanced budget, yet your campaign website shows plans for massive spending increases without any thought as to where to find the necessary money to pay for this expansion of government.
Haridopolos took aim at a number of her proposals, saying they would add $12.5 billion to the already $2.5-$3 billion shortfall expected in 2011.
Florida's current budget estimates reveal a shortfall of approximately $2.5 billion to $3 billion, he wrote. Instead of spending less to stem the tide, it appears that you would propose a staggering $12.5 billion in additional spending on everything from higher pay for state workers to high-speed rail and other areas of government spending. The consequences of these proposed increases in spending would yield nothing short of a crippling $14 billion to $15 billion budget shortfall.
We must be honest with the citizens of our state, and we need to follow the example of Florida's families who are tightening their belts and reducing their budgets when finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, continued Haridopolos. At a time when Florida families and businesses are doing more with less, they should be able to expect the same from their government.
A poll released on Tuesday morning by Quinnipiac University revealed that the race remains neck-and-neck, with Republican candidate Rick Scott taking 45 percent and Sink right behind him at 44 percent. The survey of 1,055 likely voters was done Oct. 6-10 and had a margin of error of +/- 3 percent.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859