Justice Takes On State Auditor Over Critique

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Justice Terence Bruiniers attacked the state auditor this week after the auditor criticized a recent private analysis supporting a $1.9 billion court IT project. The attack brought a quick response from a legislator who questioned why the justice would want to get into a credibility battle with the auditor.
     Bruiniers sent an email to judges around California, saying the state auditor "chose to challenge" the analysis from accounting firm Grant Thornton, based on her "misunderstandings" and "without any prior notice to or inquiry of the branch or of Grant Thornton."
     "It is difficult to understand why the BSA would summarily reject a report prepared over the course of several weeks by a recognized international expert in the field recommended by the state Technology Agency," Bruiniers wrote on Tuesday, adding that Howle's critique was "being eagerly disseminated" by critics of the project that he referred to as "strident."
      State Auditor Elaine Howle had questioned Grant Thornton's methodology in analyzing the costs and benefits of the controversial IT project, known as the Court Case Management System. She focused on "unrealistic assumptions" about the judicial bureaucracy's ability to find funding for the project and install it in all 58 trial courts by 2016.
     Howle's technology expert Payson Hall had also found that the technology on which CCMS is built may even be outdated by 2016. The Administrative Office of the Courts began developing the project in 2007, and Howle wrote, "Barring any delays, the useful life of CCMS may be very short after it begins to achieve a positive return on investment in fiscal year 2019-20."
     The auditor could not be reached for comment.
     Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Czuleger said he had seen both Grant Thornton's analysis and the auditor's critique, and agreed with Howle that the analysis "raises more questions than it answers. How do you establish a CBA when you don't have a stable system and you don't know how much is ultimately going to cost? I think that's what the state auditor was trying to raise, that there were too many assumptions here."
     Czuleger said the auditor should not have had to seek permission from the AOC or Bruiniers before releasing her critique.
     "This is the Bureau of State Audits. They are not beholden to anyone and I think it's unwise for any tax payer agency to be criticizing the auditor in this fashion," he said. "Rather than accepting good information and relying on it, they want to attack the messenger. I hope that was not what Bruiniers was trying to do. I believe Justice Bruiniers was acting in good faith, but the comments in that email sound a lot like attacking the messenger because they disagree with the message."
     The IT project has come under fire in the last year over ballooning costs and allegations of mismanagement.
     Auditor Howle released an audit last month that found the AOC had not managed costs, which she predicted could reach $2 billion, not including the costs that will be incurred by trial courts in installing it. Trial judges from all over the state have expressed displeasure with the system's alleged poor functionality, and have said that the money used for CCMS would be better spent keeping courts open.
     The project has also faced opposition in the legislature. State legislators Ricardo Lara ( D-Bell Gardens)and Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Longbeach) have called for the firing of AOC Director Bill Vickrey for his leadership of the project. In a statement distributed to media through her spokesperson, Lowenthal said, "I can't believe the AOC wants to get into a credibility contest with the state auditor."
     Last week, Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), called on the legislature to prohibit the AOC from using money for trial court operations to fund the project, calling it "a waste of taxpayer dollars."