Settlement proposed in 'Taj Mahal' photo fight

Published On: Dec 04 2012 04:34:22 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

On the verge of going to trial, two state agencies have reached a proposed settlement that would lead to paying more than $500,000 to resolve a legal battle about historical photographs that had been slated for the controversial 1st District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee.

The proposal, which involves the Department of Management Services, the Department of Financial Services and state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, stems from a lawsuit filed by Signature Art Gallery, a Tallahassee firm that was a subcontractor on the opulent courthouse building that opened in 2010.

Atwater and his predecessor, former CFO Alex Sink, refused to pay $357,500 for historical photographs that Signature Art Gallery had prepared to place in the courthouse. That prompted a series of legal disputes that engulfed the state agencies, Atwater and the general contractor on the project, Peter R. Brown Construction.

Under the proposed settlement, the state agencies will ask the Legislative Budget Commission to approve paying $392,658 to Peter R. Brown Construction, which would then pay $357,500 to Signature Art Gallery. Also, the settlement calls for paying an additional $122,224 for a variety of costs such as a construction management fee, storage charges and court costs.

Atwater and Gov. Rick Scott announced the proposal in a news release, which said the photos would go to the Division of Cultural Affairs in the Florida Department of State. Chris Cate, a spokesman of the Department of State, said it is too early to know exactly how the artwork will be used, but he said it likely will be lent to public buildings.

"CFO Atwater and I agree that the settlement will best safeguard taxpayer money while also signaling to all Floridians that our contracting system must be cost-effective, accountable and transparent,'' Scott said in the news release.

It remains unclear, however, whether the Legislative Budget Commission --- a joint House and Senate panel that makes mid-year budget decisions --- will approve the proposed settlement. With the commission expected to meet again in January, the proposal makes clear that the settlement is contingent on the panel's approval.

"If the settlement funds are not delivered to (Peter R.) Brown within seven business days after the conclusion of the January meeting of the Legislative Budget Commission, … this agreement will then be deemed null and void,'' the document says.

The towering appeals court building, which critics dubbed the "Taj Mahal,'' has drawn heavy scrutiny and even helped spur the resignation of former Chief Judge Paul Hawkes.

A Leon County circuit judge had scheduled a trial to start Dec. 17 in the Signature Art Gallery case. The proposed settlement says the trial could be rescheduled for March if the agreement is not approved.

In recent weeks, the parties have battled about whether Atwater and his chief of staff, Robert "Bud" Kneip, would have to testify in the case. The proposed settlement indicates Atwater and Kneip were scheduled to undergo depositions Tuesday, though those depositions were postponed as part of the agreement.

In the news release, Atwater described the dispute about the photographs as a "long and painful process" and said his office has maintained that past spending decisions about the courthouse "cannot be condoned."

"I am pleased that the governor and the secretary of DMS share our collective responsibility to carefully safeguard state expenditures,'' Atwater said. "I share in their commitment to guarantee that such excesses will not be repeated. With this settlement, the parties now agree that it is appropriate for the Legislature to determine the legitimacy of the payment request."