SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California legislators skewered the state’s judicial bureaucracy at a hearing Tuesday where the state auditor said the price tag could climb to $3 billion on a court computer project that one legislator compared to the problem-plagued and enormously expensive “Big Dig” construction project in Boston. State Senator Lois Wolk, D-San Joaquin, called the report “one of the most sobering audits I have seen in 10 years in the Legislature.”
Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal, D-San Pedro, who requested the audit, told 14 members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, “This audit highlights the misplaced priorities and careless spending that make people distrust their government.”
“When courts are being closed,” Lowenthal said, “workers laid off and people having a harder time getting access to justice it is not clear what we’re getting from this.”
Director William Vickrey, the state’s top judicial administrator, was in the hot seat as legislators peppered him with questions regarding an audit finding that the project to link the state’s 58 trial courts via a uniform computer system had been mismanaged from its 2001 inception and now “has a substantial risk of failure.”
Vickrey answered, “The team we had did their best and developed a good product.”
Though Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye had been invited to the hearing, she did not attend.
Auditor Elaine Howle testified that “poor cost estimates and uncertain funding have plagued the system.” She said Vickrey and the Administrative Office of the Courts had failed to give the Legislature accurate reports of the project’s cost, had failed to do a cost-benefit analysis of the project and had not implemented even the most basic level of oversight.
Though the initial audit report, released Feb. 8, revealed project costs as high as $1.9 billion, Howle said Tuesday that estimated costs to install the system in the trial courts could bring the total to $3 billion.
That amount excludes the additional millions that cash-strapped trial courts would have to pay to convert their IT systems to the new one.
According to Howle and the audit, the contract with Deloitte Consulting to develop the Court Case Management System has been amended 102 times, with the Administrative Office of the Courts paying Deloitte hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We do not feel that the contract was structured to control the cost and scope of the project,” said Howle, who noted that the contract changed 66 times between 2006 and 2007.
Vickrey said the contract was designed to be amended as the AOC went along.
“It’s hard for me to sit here and hear you justify the structure of the contract,” said Luis Alejo, D-Salinas. “It makes me wonder whether the AOC is getting it. The report shows this project was a disaster from the beginning.”
Vickrey, the AOC director, argued that the problem of funding the massive IT project stemmed from discussions in 2000 with former Gov. Gray Davis, who told Vickrey that the judicial branch had to come up with its own way of funding it. Therefore, most of the money for CCMS has come from the Trial Court Trust Fund, which many trial court judges have said is money set aside to keep courts open.
Senator Doug La Malfa, R-Richvale, compared the billion-dollar IT project to the biggest and most expensive highway project in the country, plagued by enormous cost overruns, huge delays, a tunnel ceiling collapse and leaking tunnel walls. “This is looking like the Big Dig,” he said, asking if some kind of budget control language would help curb the out-of-control spending. “If nothing else, we hold the purse strings,” La Malfa added.
While Vickrey said his administration planned to comply with all of Auditor Howle’s recommendations regarding oversight and transparency, Assembly member Lowenthal was skeptical.
The AOC had earlier taken the position that it did not need to bring in an independent consultant to perform an analysis of the project. But at the hearing on Tuesday, Vickrey back-pedaled away from that position, saying, “We will follow every single recommendation the AOC has made.”
Lowenthal said: “We’re going to need more than verbal assurances.”
The auditor had also recommended more transparency in the agency’s dealings with the Legislature, noting that in 2009 it had reported CCMS costs at $744 million when internal cost estimates were $1.5 billion.
As part of the judicial branch, the AOC is not subject to the same disclosure requirements as other bureaucracies, but Auditor Howle said, “We believe they should be more transparent about total costs.”
Appellate Justice Terence Bruiniers was also on hand to testify in defense of CCMS.
“I’m not here to offer excuses for mistakes that have been made,” he said, urging the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to look at the AOC’s “purpose, process and product. Only our process has been brought into question.”
Bruiniers’ oratory on the AOC’s “purpose” was interrupted by Assembly member and committee Vice-Chair Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles.
“There is no dispute on purpose,” Cedillo said. “But the failure of process brings concern to us about the product.”
Bruiniers responded by inviting the legislators to “come and see for yourselves. We would be more than happy to provide a demonstration.”
Bruiniers echoed Vickrey in saying, “We’ve accepted the recommendations and even implemented almost all of them.”
But La Malfa told the appellate justice, “There’s a large hill to climb” before the AOC could restore its credibility.
Judges, attorneys and court employees lined up in droves for the public comment period after the hearing. Gwen Jones-Bethel, a supervisor at San Diego Superior Court, said she could provide a “user’s perspective” on whether the product works.
Her testimony reflected the statements of other court employees working with the new IT system, who say it is cumbersome and inefficient, requiring five times as long as the earlier, simpler IT system to do relatively simply tasks. Those statements contrast with claims by administrators touting the new system.
“We embrace new technology,” Jones-Bethel said, adding that she was on board with the interim version of CCMS and supports the idea of a statewide case management system. “It’s not easy for me to stand up here with my administrators behind me and judges that say the system works. But please look at the users. It has become a system that is repeatedly not working.”
Jones-Bethel said printing a daily court calendar, which once took four keystrokes and 2 to 3 minutes, now takes 26 steps and 18 minutes. “And these are the simple tasks,” she said. The latest version of CCMS, called V4, is due for completion by April. But even Bruiniers admitted that in the “best-case scenario,” the whole project will not be complete until 2015 or 2016.
“Even that’s pushing it,” he said.
In an interview after the hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Tia Fisher said she was appalled by the AOC’s lack of oversight and mismanagement.
“That the administration did not follow the most fundamental practices is appalling,” said Fisher. “We’ve seen nothing but incompetence from the start to where we are today.”
Curtis Child, director of the Office of Governmental Affairs for the AOC, said, “I think the message was that the recommendations were taken very seriously and we will comply with every one.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Lopez-Giss said, “I don’t think it’s an issue of restoring confidence in this computer system. The issue of confidence is at a much deeper level. It’s a question of whether or not the financial aspects of the judiciary are being administered in a competent way.”
She added that the main priority of trial judges who oppose the project is keeping courtrooms open. “There are limited funds,” Lopez-Giss said. “There cannot be court closures or layoffs of anybody just so they can continue with this system.”