California Administrative Office of the Courts Bleeding Counties and Courts Dry
“What the hell did you do with all that money?” a California
That’s a good question. It vanished.
California legislators laid into the administrative bureaucracy of California’s courts at a hearing in the capitol on Wednesday, where State Auditor Elaine Howle presented a highly critical audit documenting the bureaucracy’s waste of hundreds of millions of dollars that should have gone to keeping the courts running during the state’s long-running budget crisis.
“There’s probably close to $2 billion that have been pushed into the courts. So the real question is, ‘What the hell did you do with that money?’” Assembly Member Reginald Jones-Sawyer said, the audit’s legislative sponsor.
At the hearing’s outset, Jones-Sawyer said that when he joined the State Assembly two years ago, the Legislature and the governor had already begun to pour a cumulative total of $2 billion back into the judiciary’s coffers as the California economy began to turn around, and he has not seen any fundamental change in the judicial bureaucracy.
”I’m not comfortable that there’s been any accountability,” said Jones-Sawyer. ”There seems to be relatively no oversight, and there’s no transparency.”
The hearing is the result of years of criticism from judges and legislators over the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) spendthrift ways during a period of severe cuts to the courts, as California’s economy and its budget constricted. Thousands of trial court employees were laid off and courthouses shuttered up and down the state, while the massive bureaucracy at the top of the court system cut little from its budget while pouring $500 million into a failed controversial statewide IT project.
Legislators, judges and union members hoped that things would change. Service Employees International Union representative Michelle Castro said the bloated court bureaucracy has “a very entrenched culture of poor decision-making and hubris.”
Howle’s audit, released in January, pointed to an excessive $30 million spent over a four-year period on salaries for employees of the judicial bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, as well as $386 million spent by the AOC over four years on statewide services that nearly half of California’s 58 trial courts don’t use, including $186 million on private contractors and consultants.
“Despite budget shortfalls and budget cuts, the AOC continued to provide its employees with unreasonably high salaries and generous benefits. There is a disconnect about what the AOC is doing and what the courts need,” Howle said, testifying Wednesday before a panel of state lawmakers. She added, “There has not been much progress in key areas. Reforms never got off the ground.”
“Here we are in March 2015, almost 3 years later,” she continued. “There needs to be fundamental change at the AOC. There’s some cultural change that needs to happen at the executive level. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”
Jones-Sawyer’s budget committee is set to hold its own hearing on the audit. On Wednesday, he hinted at increased legislative control, saying, “Maybe we can even do some budget language to institutionalize this so we can ensure accountability and access to justice and transparency, all of those things.”
Nonetheless, the AOC keeps wantonly bleeding the taxpayer’s money, the courts, and the counties dry.
In a searing report on California’s court bureaucracy in January, the state auditor singled out the financial accountability committee for failing in its mission. Last month, the same committee approved another multi-million-dollar request for a statewide technology project, inviting a fresh blast of criticism from trial judges who said it looked to be yet another waste of money.
The new tech project would cost $5.6 million to build data exchanges between the courts, law enforcement agencies and the Judicial Branch Statistical Information System. The project would rely almost entirely on private contractors making up the bulk of the cost, requiring eight new contract workers and costing $3.2 million of the total.
The idea has a poor track record behind it. It’s the same type of exchange that was a heavily-promoted feature of the earlier statewide tech project, the Court Case Management System, which also relied heavily on outside contractors and spending $500 million– before it was abandoned altogether as a total waste.
“The AOC’s use of contractors, temporary workers, and consultants has resulted in significantly higher costs than the AOC would have incurred had it hired state employees to perform this work,” auditor Howle said. She estimated that if state employees were used rather than contractors, the savings over three years would total $21 million.
“It’s an awful lot of money when they couldn’t spare $72,000 for Siskiyou County,” said Judge Greg Dohi of Los Angeles.
Dohi was referring to the hat-in-hand visit to San Francisco by judges from Siskiyou Superior Court in the far north of California. In addition to rejecting their very modest request, the council voted unanimously against $82,000 for Mono County and $300,000 for Del Norte County, all courts trying to avoid firing their employees.
In the end, the committee regardless voted 11-2 to approve the additional and controversial $5.6 million funding request.
Before casting her vote, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Joyce Hinrichs said, “In how the money will be spent, there are multiple committees specialized in this that will be better able to direct staff about what needs to happen. We may not even get the money in the first place.”