(CN) - California's judicial bureaucracy wasted millions on overpaid employees and "questionable business practices," as Judicial Council supervisors turned a blind eye, according to an exhaustive investigation by the state auditor published Wednesday.
The auditor's blistering, 96-page report noted that nine of the AOC's office directors are paid more than the governor, and also pointed to a series of other indulgences that have eroded confidence in the bureaucracy and diminished resources that would have otherwise gone to the trial courts.
"The level of the Judicial Council's involvement in the AOC's budget process and expenditure decisions appears to have been more ministerial than substantive. In the absence of adequate oversight, the AOC engaged in questionable compensation and business practices, and failed to adequately disclose its expenditures to stakeholders and the public," Auditor Elaine Howle wrote.
Shortly after the report's release, the reform group Alliance of California Judges issued a statement saying, "The Judicial Council has lost touch with its primary mission of advising the courts, and has instead morphed into an over-bloated bureaucracy that places its own interests ahead of those of the trial courts it was created to serve."
The group of roughly 500 judges that has hammered the central bureaucracy of the courts over spending habits, size and perceived arrogance, added, "We have never contended that we have all of the answers to the problems facing our court system, but we persist in one unwavering belief -- money could not have been so tragically misdirected if the process whereby funds are allocated to the courts had been an open and democratic one."
Former Alliance director and retired judge Charles Horan of Los Angeles said, "Once again, what we've been saying has been verified by an independent source. What the AOC and the chief justice have denied over and over and tried to minimize has been laid out for everybody to see."
In her report, Howle offered an unprecedented solution, based on a survey conducted by her office that found each trial court in the state used an average of 55 percent of the AOC's services.
"Given the lapses in the Judicial Council's oversight and the AOC's decision making that we identify in this report, we believe significant change is necessary to ensure that the State's courts receive the critical funding they require to provide access to justice to all Californians," she wrote. "One change could come in the form of a fee-for-service delivery structure for the AOC, which would redirect some of the funding that it currently receives to the courts and empower them to use that funding to pay for only those AOC services that they need."
She added, "An expanded fee-for-service system could also lead to a right-sized AOC. If such a system was established, the AOC would derive part of its funding from the trial courts' payments for services. Under the current system of service delivery, courts can use as many AOC services as they wish at no direct cost to the requesting court."
Judicial Council leadership did not respond to a request for comment on the audit through its press office, but the council recently scheduled a closed session meeting for Wednesday afternoon, to discuss "personnel and other confidential matters."
But Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who headed the effort to obtain the audit, said in an interview that he agreed with the auditor's recommendations.