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.