Judge sides with contractor in ‘Taj Mahal’ case

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An administrative law judge Monday ruled against the state Department of Financial Services in a dispute about paying for historical photographs at the controversial 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse in Tallahassee, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Judge June McKinney found that the department improperly relied on a rule in denying payment for more than $350,000 in photograph-related work at the courthouse, which was completed in 2010 and has been dubbed the “Taj Mahal” because of its extravagant design and décor.

Peter R. Brown Construction, the general contractor on the project, filed the administrative challenge earlier this year against the department. The company subcontracted with another firm, Signature Art Gallery Inc., to reproduce photographs and install them throughout the courthouse — but later became caught in the middle of a circuit-court lawsuit in which Signature is seeking payment.

Robert Buesing, an attorney who represents Peter R. Brown Construction, said Monday he will use McKinney’s order in a related circuit-court case to help bolster arguments that the Department of Financial Services should pay the bills. Though it sides with Signature Art Gallery on the payment issue, Peter R. Brown has been named as a defendant in the circuit-court case along with the Department of Financial Services.

Buesing said the state Department of Management Services, which oversaw the construction project, signed off on the subcontract with Signature. But the Department of Financial Services would not pay the bills, which total $357,000 for Signature and additional management-related fees for Peter R. Brown Construction.

Alexis Lambert, a Department of Financial Services spokeswoman, said late Monday the department will review McKinney’s order during the next several days and said it is “not determinative of the case in circuit court.”

Part of the department’s legal argument in the administrative case centered on a rule that it said prevented payment for “decorative items.” But in her 16-page order, McKinney said the rule was vague and, as a result, invalid.

“A wide range of things can be considered and different people can guess at its meaning or come up with various interpretations for ‘decorative items,’ ” she wrote. “The department’s contention that Signature’s contract for ‘framed pictures’ falls within the interpretation of (the) rule … is not persuasive.”

Buesing said the department has paid for other touches at the courthouse such as wood paneling, wainscoting and special lighting but has refused to pay for the historical photos.

The 1st District Court of Appeal project became a cause celebre in 2010 after the Tampa Bay Times began reporting on its opulence. The project and a subsequent investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission ultimately led to the resignation of former Chief Judge Paul Hawkes.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.