TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A Florida state appellate judge is resigning rather than face ethics charges stemming largely from his lead role in the construction of an opulent $48.8 million courthouse that critics have derided as a "Taj Mahal."
First District Court of Appeal Judge Paul Hawkes, a former Republican lawmaker and legislative staffer, submitted a letter of resignation dated Nov. 9 to Gov. Rick Scott, who will appoint a replacement.
The letter that became public on Wednesday says Hawkes' resignation is effective Jan. 4. That's nearly four weeks before he had been scheduled for a hearing before an investigative panel of the Judicial Qualification Commission.
One of the Tallahassee courthouse project's leading critics, state Sen. Mike Fasano, said the resignation was overdue.
"I had called for his resignation a long time ago shortly after it surfaced - his spending habits in the building of the Taj Mahal," said the chairman of Senate budget subcommittee that oversees judicial spending.
The massive building is replete with stately columns inside and out, an ornate dome, granite desk and counter tops, miles of mahogany trim and etched glass windows. It also has individual bathrooms and kitchens for each of the 15 judges.
"It is important that we in the legislative body ... understand what happened, why it happened, make certain it never happens again," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. He said Hawkes and a colleague persuaded lawmakers in the hectic waning hours of a legislative session to "build their palace."
Hawkes' letter does not mention the allegations against him but brags about the court's implementation of electronic filing while he was its chief judge and its efficiency in disposing of cases compared to other appellate courts.
"The judges and employees of this court are truly an incredible group of individuals," Hawkes wrote. "Working with them has been a privilege and an honor."
The commission, though, has charged Hawkes' verbally attacked other state employees who were working on the courthouse project, had its manager removed for questioning the cost and took actions that exceeded legislative intent in regard to the project.
The complaint included several charges unrelated to the project including allegations Hawkes misled colleagues on budgetary matters and tried to get the court's deputy clerk to doctor the budget.
The commission's executive director, Brooke Kennerly, said the usual practice is to drop cases against judges if they resign because the most severe penalty possible is removal from office, but no action has yet been taken in response to Hawkes' resignation.
Hawkes, who was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003, denied the allegations, and his lawyer promised a vigorous defense. The commission makes recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court, which has final authority over such cases.
Hawkes stayed on the court last year after resigning as chief judge at the request of Chief Justice Charles Canady.
Last January, shortly after the court moved into its new building, Hawkes and fellow 1st District Judge Bradford Thomas appeared before Fasano's subcommittee and offered qualified apologies for their roles in the courthouse project. Thomas has not been accused of any ethics violations.
Fasano then called the courthouse project an "ugly mess" and "the epitome of arrogance."
Hawkes said he was sorry for "any role that I've had that brought this project beyond legislative intent."
The two judges took the lead in lobbying the Legislature to fund the building over a span of several years. That included the unique approach of floating a 30-year bond issue to finance it.
As a result of the uproar, Canady ordered State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner to oversee future building projects. That would be in addition to oversight provided by the state Department of Management Services, which supervised the 1st District's building.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)