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Maneuvering Behind Top Salaries|in CA Court Bureaucracy Revealed

(CN) - When the State Auditor released a report this month on the state of California's bureaucracy for the courts, exorbitantly high executive staff salaries were a recurring criticism.

"At a salary of over $179,000, the AOC pays eight of its nine office directors more than the governor and other high-ranking state officials receive, yet those officials have much broader responsibilities," Auditor Elaine Howle wrote.

When Judge Tia Fisher of Los Angeles read Auditor Howle's report, she said she was "dismayed" to find that Howle was given no explanation as to why the top executives at the Administrative Office of the Courts are so highly paid.

In a letter to Courthouse News, Fisher recounted a vote by the Judicial Council's Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency, often referred to as the A&E committee, to approve high salary ranges for three of those executives back in 2012. As a member of the committee for one year, Fisher cast one of only two dissenting votes.

She is also a director of the Alliance of California Judges, a 500-member judicial reform group that has long criticized the AOC's spending.

The A&E committee vote centered around three newly-created executive positions as part of a move to restructure the AOC, following a report from the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of 14 judges charged with evaluating the AOC's efficiency and transparency. Among the group's 124 recommendations was a call to reorganize its management structure to be less top-heavy.

Under the new system, former administrative director Jody Patel became chief of staff, former head lobbyist for the AOC Curt Child became chief operating officer, and former division director Curt Soderlund became chief administrative officer.

With the change in titles, Patel's annual base salary jumped from $198,000 to $216,000 and both Soderlund and Child went from earning $176,000 a year to a base salary of $198,000.

Those salaries continued to climb, according to the Sacramento Bee's state worker salary database. Patel's 2014 salary is currently $218,000, Child's is $204,000 and Soderlund's is $202,000, based on that data.

The three top executives also continued to benefit from a 22% retirement contribution picked up entirely by California's taxpayers, with no matching contribution from the executives. The system is toploaded, limited to the top executives in the court bureaucracy, a form of favoritism forbidden by federal law. State governments are exempt from that law.

The perk was phased out after harsh criticism from the Legislature, but the auditor noted in her report that employees hired before October 2012 still receive it, and it has cost the taxpayers $858,000 since 2010.

The game of musical administrative chairs, accompanied by big salary bumps, started with August 24, 2012 email from AOC staffer Susan Reeves saying A&E committee chair Justice Richard Huffman had asked to convene a meeting on Sept. 4, "regarding a matter on which the Chief Justice will be seeking the committee's review and guidance."

Reeves added, "information pertaining to the request will be shared with members following the Judicial Council meeting on August 31."


On August 31, the full Judicial Council voted to put in place a redesigned organizational structure where 14 executive level positions were turned into four -- the administrative director, chief of staff, chief operating officer and chief administrative officer.

That same day, after the meeting, Fisher received another email from Reeves with a memo from the Chief Justice attached. Reeves said the attachment was related to the upcoming conference call. The memo, dated Aug. 31, 2012, was entitled "Salary Ranges for the Newly Established AOC Classifications."

The note from the chief referenced the day's Judicial Council vote.

"To ensure timely implementation of the organizational changes as adopted by the Judicial Council, I would appreciate receiving the committee's feedback at the conclusion of your conference call on Sept. 4, 2012," she wrote.

In an additional memo, AOC Director Steven Jahr argued for even higher salary ranges for the new executives. Jahr even reasoned that the higher salaries could be justified through the alleged cost savings of eliminating Patel and Soderlund's old jobs, as well as nine other executive positions.

For comparison, Jahr also attached a list of head clerk salaries in trial courts throughout California, and salaries for other state government jobs, like the director for the governor's Department of Finance.

In an email, Justice Huffman said he had consulted with committee vice-chair Justice Kathleen O'Leary on the events of the meeting.

He wrote, "The incoming director felt the need to fill the positions and get his management team in place. The committee was not 'rushed' but it made sense to get the new management structure in place. So we dealt with it promptly but not without full discussion and expression of all points of view."

Huffman also confirmed Fisher's account that no meeting minutes were taken.

Fisher said Jahr was available to answer questions the day of the teleconference, but left the call before discussion started. "One of the judges asked Justice Huffman if we could have more time to consider the recommendations," Fisher said. "Justice Huffman advised that the Chief Justice wanted our recommendation that evening and that he was to call her with our recommendation after the call. He advised the judge who made this inquiry that she could abstain if she was not comfortable voting."

Fisher said she opposed the high salary ranges Jahr recommended.

"Fundamentally, it was my opinion that the range was too high," she said. "I made a motion to reduce the range. I do not recall there being a 'second.' After the approximately one-hour call, Justice Huffman took a vote, all but two of the members supported the Chief's proposed salary range. I voted 'No.' I asked Justice Huffman to please explain the reason for my 'No' to the Chief when he spoke to her later."

Huffman recounted a different story. "I don't recall committee objections to the top end amounts. We did suggest a lower bottom end to the salary range. We were also aware of the salary ranges for trial court executives which in some cases are significantly higher," Huffman said.

He later added, "The committee did not discuss salaries for individuals, but salary ranges for positions. Neither Justice O'Leary nor I have any recollection of any objections to the salary ranges, however, A&E did recommend that the bottom end of the ranges be lowered by 5 percent."

The next morning, a press release announced that Patel, Child and Soderlund were appointed to the new positions by the chief justice in collaboration with Jahr, and that their salaries were at the very top of the range recommended to the chief justice.

Fisher was not reappointed to the A&E committee. In 2013, when Fisher joined fellow Alliance judges in pushing for the recently-completed AOC audit, she told Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer about "the salaries, the lack of transparency and about my 'No' vote. Assembly Member Jones-Sawyer listened attentively. He asked probing questions that demonstrated his sophisticated understanding of budget and management."

In early 2013, Jones-Sawyer's budget sub-committee unanimously approved the audit.

Howle's team interviewed AOC staff on the salary topic, but received unsatisfactory answers.

"The AOC was unable to explain how it came to pay salaries to its employees that are higher than those in the executive branch, but the chief of staff noted that the Chief Justice last approved AOC staff salaries in October 2012. The former director of the human resources services office (former human resources director) explained that, in general, many newly hired AOC employees' salaries are set at the minimum of the range unless a higher salary is warranted by exceptional job qualifications or other legitimate business reasons," Howle wrote.

"Although the former human resources director provided us various personnel-related memos and other documents dating back to 1970, none of these documents explained how the AOC determined that its salary structure would be different and at a higher average compensation level than that of the executive branch," she said.

Howle also faulted the Judicial Council for withholding from its financial accountability committee the power to actually hold the AOC financially accountable.

"It is unclear how the financial advisory committee can ensure accountability of the AOC when it does not exist independently of the AOC, it does not review the AOC's expenditures, and the AOC can override the financial advisory committee's recommendations to the Judicial Council," Howle wrote.

She added, "Even though the Judicial Council created the Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency for the Judicial Branch to promote transparency, accountability, efficiency, and understanding of the AOC and the judicial branch, the Judicial Council did not ensure that the financial advisory committee fulfilled its intended purpose."

The name of the court administrative agency was changed recently to the Judicial Council "staff," but its composition and duties have largely remained the same.

As the auditor noted, the Judicial Council approved raises for hundreds of staff members twice in the last five years, a period when the courts were entering and then mired in a deep financial crisis.

The first raise was in late 2010, just after Cantil-Sakauye was appointed by outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The retroactive 3.5% pay hike applied to about 80% of the staff and was recommended by the A&E committee at its inaugural meeting which was also the first committee meeting chaired by Cantil-Sakauye after she was named chief. Despite a request from CNS to attend, the meeting was kept off limits to the press.

The second 3.5 percent raise was authorized by the chief justice in 2013.

Defending her action in an email, Cantil-Sakauye said, "Step increases occur in all three branches of government and at all levels throughout the state. I see no reason why employees who work for the Chief Justice, the appellate justices, or the Judicial Council should be treated any differently."

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