SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A prominent judge in Los Angeles on Monday called in the clearest terms yet for the departure of the head of California's powerful court administrative agency William Vickrey, in the wake of a deepening scandal over its billion-dollar deal with a private consultant for the development of a troubled technical system. In a 6-page letter, Judge Stephen Czuleger questioned the honesty and competence of the agency run by Vickrey and accused it of running a double set of books.
The extraordinary critique comes as a legislative audit committee is set to meet in Sacramento on Tuesday morning to go over a state audit that seared Vickrey and his agency for giving the legislators a financial picture that did not match the internal books at the Administrative Office of the Courts, after that agency entered into a series of contracts with a private consultant carrying a $1.9 billion price tag.
"The dual bookkeeping and failure to be forthcoming makes the AOC's honesty even more suspect," said Czuleger in his letter.
He sharply criticized the decision by Vickrey and the agency to push forward with the IT program despite the audit's withering criticism and the state auditor's directive that its benefit be analyzed before any more money is spent.
"Ignoring this clear directive," said the letter, "would be the height of arrogance."
The six-page letter is addressed to Appeal Court Justice Terence Bruiniers, who has emerged as the chief judicial defender of the administrative agency. The letter expresses sympathy with his predicament in defending the deals that have dug a deep well of resentment among trial judges faced with court closures and budget cuts.
But much more is needed, said Judge Czuleger, than "some worn out defense of the sullied project."
"I believe that it is time for maturity, competence, honesty and new blood be finally brought to this project," said Czuleger in a the context of an extensive discussion of director Vickrey's past actions promoting and leading the IT project. "A change of leadership is warranted now."
The Los Angeles trial judge and former prosecutor in Federal Court, where double book-keeping is regularly prosecuted, said the contracts were steered to a consultant that was not honest and then they were not properly overseen.
"First, Deloitte was not being honest and forthcoming," said Czuleger in his letter. "Second, the AOC would award the contract to Deloitte regardless."
Referring to the full name of the IT system called the Court Case Management System, Czuleger added, "Deloitte clearly views CCMS as a cash cow, and the AOC as its partner in its profit scheme."
The agency's actions in steering the contract and failing to reasonably oversee it were followed by an effort to hide the true cost of the system, said Czuleger in his indictment of the agency. "The AOC was giving the Legislature one figure while internally booking another."
In a jarring juxtaposition to the urgency of the judicial attacks directed towards the AOC, the agency also on Monday issued a press release suggesting it had already satisfied the audit's concern while pledging to keep going down its billion-dollar path with a private contractor.
"We have already fulfilled a number of key recommendations," said Justice Bruiniers in the statement distributed by the AOC. "There seems to be little question that we're on the right path. I think it's important to emphasize that the audit does not recommend ending the project. We need to move on."
The IT project has been besieged by complaints that it is cumbersome and requires a great deal more time from court workers while officials regularly complain of staff shortages and have closed the courts one day a month during the past year to save money.
The administrative agency's traditional response to criticism has been to promote the virtues of the CCMS system, while attacking its critics. Czuleger, in his role both as presiding judge in Los Angeles as well as member of an earlier oversight committee, questioned the expenses being generated by the private contractor years ago.
The response, he said, was a campaign of villification in an effort to silence the critic.
"Vickrey was going around the state lying about me and my court," said Czuleger in his harshest condemnation of the powerful agency director.
He said the current response by the AOC to last week's blast from the state auditor are nearly identical to past defenses from the agency when faced with criticism.
"To argue that the audit is positive because it does not call for cessation of CCMS activities reminds me of an old joke, `Well other than that Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?'"
The Los Angeles judge said he is pointing the series of incidents in order to illustrate "the exact same pattern of incompetence continuing to this very day."
"I fear that the past is a prologue here," said Czuleger coming to his conclusion. "The same folks who ignored the problems detailed in the audit again appear to be interested in circling the wagons and attacking all dissent."
"Some of the people who are responsible for the CCMS failures of the past are responsible for the CCMS project today. This is not surprising as Bill Vickrey picked all the members of your committee," said Czuleger referring to another just-formed "oversight" committee.
"At some point common sense calls for a realization that the AOC has failed to come to grips with the issues."
"Real change is necessary or we shall all suffer the consequences. I believe that it is time for maturity, competence, honesty and new blood be brought finally to this project," he wrote in conclusion. "A viable and honest plan, serious minded managers, and a change of leadership is warranted now. The alternative is to march on into a growing uncertainty for the entire judiciary."
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