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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman October 13, 2010

Tying Jeff Atwater to the 'Taj Mahal' courthouse project

Another day on the campaign trail in Florida, another accusation that a politician is spending tax dollars recklessly.

This time the accused is state Sen. Jeff Atwater, the Republican candidate for chief financial officer. The accuser is his Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Loranne Ausley.

"Tallahassee's a mess, and Jeff Atwater's part of the problem," a narrator says in a TV ad Ausley unveiled Oct. 11, 2010. "Atwater's busy helping his friends and wasting our tax dollars -- $48 million for a government building so lavish it's dubbed the 'Taj Mahal,' $100,000 for a golf museum, and $110 million to build a private prison to help a big contributor."

Enter the ad's foil, who (can you believe it?) just happens to be Ausley.

"I'm Loranne Ausley, and as chief financial officer I'll eliminate pay-to-play contracts and hold politicians like Jeff Atwater accountable for how they spend our tax dollars," Ausley says. "It's time to clean up the mess in Tallahassee."

The three projects Ausley questioned span seven years of Atwater's legislative history, starting in 2003. Let's take a look at each.

The $100,000 for a golf museum

As a freshman state senator in January 2003, Atwater requested $100,000 to help cover future expenses at the PGA Historical Center in Palm Beach Gardens. The money was included in Community Budget Issue Request -- which is a budget request legislators make for local projects, the state's version of an earmark. State Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, made a matching request in the state House.

The historical center is akin to a golf museum, according to the PGA's website, and features displays of the four major championship trophies and the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame.

CBIRs, love them or hate them, have been part of the legislative process. (The Legislature stopped the practice in 2009). Ausley has her share of budget requests over eight years in the state House: $400,000 for design, development and construction of public improvements adjacent to the Capitol Center in Tallahassee; $300,000 to help create an information kit for new parents; and $400,000 to restore Tallahassee's waterworks building, are just a few.

A lot of times, CBIRs don't get funded. That's the case here -- Atwater's $100,000 request didn't make it into the final 2003-2004 budget.

The 'Taj Mahal' courthouse

The genesis of the $48 million 'Taj Mahal' 1st District Court of Appeals courthouse came in the form of a bond issue slipped into a 142-page transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session. Plans for the Tallahassee courthouse included mahogany paneling, 60-inch LCD flat screen televisions for each judge, a private bathroom for each judge (featuring granite countertops) and an accompanying kitchen (complete with microwave and refrigerator).

The construction project has been widely panned by elected leaders who said they didn't know that funding was inserted into a transportation bill or blame someone else for letting the building costs rage out of control. The Department of Revenue, for instance, recently constructed a new building at $225 per square foot. The cost of the new courthouse, which will house about 120 state employees? About $425 a square foot.

What was Atwater's role in approving the courthouse project?

The only link we could find, and the only one the Ausley campaign provided, was that he voted for the transportation bill, HB 985. The bill passed the Senate 37-2. Atwater says he simply voted for a bond issue for the project and that the construction details were handled by the court system and the state building agency. "Apparently I personally went out and hand-built the 1st DCA building," he told the St. Petersburg Times.

The Times' Lucy Morgan obtained an e-mail circulated among the judges on the courthouse building committee identifying "heroes'' in delivering the money to build it. The list includes five Republican state senators, then-House speaker Marco Rubio, and others, but not Atwater. And an audit of the courthouse project, ordered by current Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, largely laid blame for the project at the feet of the court and the Department of Management Services, the state agency that oversees construction and leasing of state buildings. Authorization of the bond issue put DMS in charge of the project.

Ausley voted against the transportation bill in the House, but says she did not know about the amendment that was added to build the courthouse.

The $110 million private prison

In 2008, with Florida's prison population growing and expected to continue to grow rapidly, lawmakers added hundreds of millions of dollars in the state budget to construct new prison facilities.

Included in the budget was a requirement that the state use some of the money to build a 2,000-bed, $110 million privately operated correctional facility. Proponents say privately run facilities cost taxpayers less, but they are opposed by police unions. It wasn't a new concept -- the state already had six privately managed prison facilities.

Atwater's role in the private prison deal? All we could find is that he voted for the state budget, which included the appropriation. Ausley voted against the budget that year. The private prison clause, it turns out, was inserted by former state Rep. Ray Sansom, the one-time Republican House speaker who resigned in disgrace in 2010.

The deal did include a requirement that the contract to build the facility be competitively bid. The contract was won by The GEO Group, of Boca Raton -- one of two companies already managing private prison facilities in Florida. The GEO Group manages or owns 116 corrections facilities worldwide.

Fast forward to this spring. The private prison, now called the Blackwater River Correctional Facility, was nearing completion but because the prison population hadn't grown as anticipated it had no potential prisoners to take in. Atwater, as Senate president, helped craft a budget deal to allow the new private prison to open by shifting some inmates from state-run prisons to the Blackwater River facility.

As we already noted, The GEO Group won the contract to build Blackwater River after Atwater voted for the state budget, which passed the Senate 32-8. But since Ausley talks about The GEO Group as a "big contributor" in the ad, we decided to check that claim out, too. Since 2000 when Atwater was first elected to the state House, The GEO Group, its political action committee and subsidiaries have donated $2,500 to Atwater's campaigns, according to a review of campaign finance records.

In the 2010 election cycle alone, The GEO Group's PAC has contributed almost $236,000 to candidates -- including $500 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and $500 to Democratic House leader Franklin Sands.


Along with the claims, Ausley's ad includes visuals of an actor who plays Atwater accepting envelopes from men in suits and then tucking those envelopes into his jacket pocket. That's an obvious and dubious suggestion that somehow Atwater is taking bribes or kickbacks for his votes. We note it only for its ridiculousness.

Ausley makes three claims about Atwater helping his friends and wasting taxpayer dollars. The $100,000 for the PGA golf museum was not included in the state budget. The only connections between Atwater and the 1st District Court of Appeals courthouse project and a 2,000-bed private prison are that Atwater voted on massive bills that included these projects and lots of other things. The ad makes it sound somehow like Atwater was spearheading or directing these projects, when there is zero evidence he was. We rate this claim False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Loranne Ausley campaign, "Mess," Oct. 11, 2010

Loranne Ausley campaign, e-mail interview with Kevin Cate, Oct. 13, 2010

Jeff Atwater campaign, e-mail interview with Brian Hughes, Oct. 13, 2010

State Senate, Jeff Atwater Community Budget Issue Request, PGA Historical Center

2003 state budget

State House, Loranne Ausley Community Budget Issue Requests

St. Petersburg Times, "While most state courts face harsh budget cuts, the 1st District Court of Appeal gets a $48 million 'Taj Mahal'," Aug. 9, 2010

St. Petersburg Times, "Audit of 'Taj Mahal' 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse finds 17 problem areas," Oct. 12, 2010

State House, HB 985 (transportation bill)

St. Petersburg Times, "E-mail names 'heroes' who got legislative funding for 'Taj Mahal' courthouse," Sept. 23, 2010

Orlando Sentinel, "Lawmakers slip mandate for a new private prison into budget," May 30, 2008

State House, HB 5001 (budget)

Palm Beach Post, "Prison plan assailed as sneaky, misleading," March 27, 2010

St. Petersburg Times, "Legislative roundup: Proposed prison cuts spark protests," April 15, 2008

St. Petersburg Times, "New private prison lacks inmates but has political support," March 31, 2010

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