California Court Administrators Still|Falling Short, State Auditor Howle Says

     (CN) – Reaction to the California Auditor’s latest blast of the court bureaucracy’s spending practices was swift and strong, falling along past lines of division.
     Auditor Elaine Howle said on Wednesday that the Administrative Office of the Courts is not showing that is has implemented her recommendations which include a method for providing accurate and complete cost estimates for future IT projects.
     Assembly Member Luis Alejo said Wednesday that he would be “looking at possible legislative solutions” to make sure that misuse of public funds is put to a stop.
     Judge Steve White called the bureaucracy’s second shortcoming “dismaying but not surprising,” and “another chapter in the solipsistic saga of the AOC.”
     Defending the court administrators, Justice Terence Bruiniers said, “I don’t know what more we can tell the Legislature or the Auditor at this point. It’s hard to see where the Auditor is coming from on some of these issues.”
     It was two years ago that Auditor Howle blasted the bureaucracy’s ambitious project to push local courts into a uniform system for filing and keeping court records. She said the Administrative Office of the Courts had failed to provide the Legislature with accurate spending totals.
     Her audit in February, 2011, marked the beginning of Legislative scrutiny of the project, called the Court Case Management System, that led to its downfall in March of last year. By then, administrators had dedicated more than $500 million on the software derided by trial judges as a “boondoggle” and a “fiasco.”
     The original audit recommended that the AOC provide the Legislature with “full and accurate cost estimates” on future IT projects and come up with a long term strategy to fund them before investing such enormous amounts of public money.
     Howle then told a legislative budget committee last year that the administrators were not following her recommendations. “We have a lot of outstanding issues,” she said at the time.
     In Tuesday’s review that encompassed other state agencies, Auditor Howle checked a box next to the Administrative Office of the Courts that said, “Auditee did not substantiate its claim of full implementation.”
     Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), who was on the budget committee that heard Howle’s complaint last year, reacted to Tuesday’s report by saying that he would be looking for a legislative solution.
     Alejo said he was glad to see progress had been made in implementing “much needed changes.”
     But, he added, “It’s clear that more can be done. I will be looking at possible legislative solutions to ensure that this type of misuse of public funds does not happen again.”
     Justice Terence Bruiniers, a longtime supporter of the CCMS project and chair of the Court Technology Advisory Committee, said in an email that there is nothing to report on because there are no statewide IT projects in the works.
     “We have no IT projects for which to provide cost estimates to anyone, at least at the moment,” said Bruiniers. “I absolutely agree that identification of funding strategies is an essential component of any future projects.”
     In an interview, he added, “We know there are going to be significant costs coming down the line as courts’ existing case management systems fail. But right now we don’t have a funding mechanism for those. We need to figure out what technology should be addressed and funded at the state level and what should be funded at the local level.”
     “Hopefully we’ll get answers to these questions soon,” he added. “I don’t know what more we can tell the Legislature or the Auditor at this point.”
     Judge Steve White, the new president of the Alliance of California Judges, said he hoped the governor and Legislature are not influenced by the auditor’s report when making budget decisions that affect the judicial branch.
     “The episodes of mismanagement and inefficiencies and bad judgment that have played out over the last several years should not be attributable to the courts,” he said. “I worry that when the other branches of government see reports like this about the AOC’s indifference to the auditor’s recommendations that they think that the judicial branch is not being prudent and responsible. It isn’t the judicial branch that isn’t being prudent and responsible, it’s the AOC.”

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