SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A letter sent Thursday by two prominent legislators to California’s newly enrobed chief justice called for the firing of head judicial administrator William Vickrey over his “staggering mismanagement” of a $1.9 billion court IT project. Two powerful Assembly members, Ricardo Lara (D-Longbeach) and Bonnie Lowenthal (D-San Pedro), rebuked Vickrey for taking a relatively modest court computer system and turning it into a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle.
“I see this as an opportunity for the Chief Justice to clean house,” said Lara in a phone interview.
“I don’t take this decision lightly, and the fact is that Vickrey has spent over a decade in this position,” said Lara who is chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. “During his tenure we have seen the system skyrocket in price without any accountability.”
Speaking from the airport in Los Angeles, the legislator added that Vickrey, as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, had ignored a number of warnings and chosen “to keep his head in the sand.”
Reacting strongly, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said late Thursday afternoon, “I have received the letter. I consider this letter a serious attempt to interfere with judicial branch governance and my ability to evaluate the AOC’s management team.”
That argument reflects a common theme in the Legislature where members have expressed deep reluctance to meddle in matters involving the judicial branch of government.
The letter from Lara and Lowenthal addressed the point.
“The fact that we represent a separate branch of government in no way diminishes our duty to give this advice,” they said. “Californians rightly believe they have not three governments but one.”
Their letter follows on the heels of a scathing audit released earlier this month that condemned the judicial administrators both for poor management of a massive private contract to develop the IT system and for presenting a disguised picture of the true cost of the project to California’s Legislature.
“It is an unusual set of circumstances that prompts us to urge you in the strongest terms to replace Administrative Officer William Vickrey,” says the letter from Lara and Lowenthal. It goes on to discuss warnings of a project gone awry that were ignored by Vickrey, clear signs that the IT project lacked oversight and could be headed towards failure.
“Under Mr. Vickrey’s leadership, the projected cost of a statewide court case management system has ballooned from $260 million in 2004 to $1.9 billion, and counting, today,” Lara and Lowenthal wrote.
“During the course of the system’s evolution, the Administrative Office of the Courts, led by Mr. Vickrey, has consistently ignored warnings. In 2004, the Legislative Analyst’s Office warned of a lack of planning and oversight. In 2007, the consulting firm providing limited oversight to the development of CCMS detailed significant concerns. Under Mr. Vickrey’s oversight, many of these issues remained unresolved for several months.”
The letter adds, “Mr. Vickrey’s bewildering dismissal of sound advice has resulted in the kind of debacle that, in any other setting, already would have resulted in termination. The fact that news of his staggering mismanagement comes during a deep budget crisis only underscores the need for his departure.”
“The AOC has never conducted a formalized cost benefit analysis of the project,” said the auditor. “Without such an analysis, it is unable to demonstrate that the cost of the project, almost $1.9 billion according to its most current estimates, is warranted.”
In her sharply worded answer to the call for Vickrey’s firing, the chief justice said the legislators are interfering with her ability to run the judicial branch’s affairs and their letter constitutes a diversion from difficult budget issues.
“This letter is a profound diversion from the difficult issues that our branch is trying to resolve,” she said in a statement issued by the press office of the Judicial Council. Those issues facing the chief include a mandate from Governor Jerry Brown to cut $200 million from the budget for the judicial branch.
Cantil-Sakauye went on to defend the head administrator.
“Mr. Vickrey is and has been an invaluable resource to the judicial branch and I continue to work closely with him and others to meet the courts’ challenges most notably the $200 million reduction to the branch,” she said.
Vickrey’s office was contacted for a comment on the legislators’ letter but he is currently out of his San Francisco office and could not immediately respond.
The letter from Lara and Lowenthal comes only one week after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Czuleger called for Vickrey’s resignation in a separate letter to Justice Terence Bruiniers who has been defending the administrators.
Czuleger charged that the agency’s “dual bookkeeping and failure to be forthcoming” have made its honesty suspect, while the administrators have shown “a pattern of incompetence continuing to this very day.”
“I believe that it is time for maturity, competence, honesty and new blood be finally brought to this project,” Czuleger wrote. “A change of leadership is warranted now.”
Another trial court judge recently addressed the massive IT project and the statewide administrators responsible for it, in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We need to face the larger truth: our judicial governance structure is broken,” wrote Judge Charles Horan from Los Angeles Superior Court, by far the largest court in California and in the nation as a whole. “Some of our leaders appear arrogant, and others too accustomed to power. Things must change.”