SACRAMENTO (CN) - California legislators laid into the administrative bureaucracy of California's courts at a hearing in the capitol on Wednesday, where State Auditor Elaine Howle presented a highly critical audit documenting the bureaucracy's waste of hundreds of millions of dollars that should have gone to keeping the courts running during the state's long-running budget crisis.
"There's probably close to $2 billion that have been pushed into the courts. So the real question is, 'What the hell did you do with that money?'" Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer said.
Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles, was the audit's legislative sponsor.
At the hearing's outset, he said that when he joined the State Assembly two years ago, the Legislature and the governor had already begun to pour a cumulative total of $2 billion back into the judiciary's coffers as the California economy began to turn around.
With the new director of the AOC waiting to speak, the legislator he said he has not seen any fundamental change in the judicial bureaucracy. "I'm still not comfortable that there's been any accountability," said Jones Sawyer. "There seems to be relatively no oversight, and there's no transparency."
The hearing is the result of years of criticism from judges and legislators over the AOC's spendthrift ways during a period of severe cuts to the courts, as California's economy and its budget constricted. Thousands of trial court employees were laid off and courthouses shuttered up and down the state, but all the while the massive bureaucracy at the top of the court system cut little from its budget while pouring $500 million into a controversial statewide IT project.
Legislators, judges and union members hoped that with a new director appointed in the fall, things would change. The new director, Martin Hoshino, also spoke before the committee and declared that progress is coming slowly, as Service Employees International Union representative Michelle Castro wished the director well but added that the bureaucracy has "a very entrenched culture of poor decision-making and hubris."
Howle's audit, released in January, pointed to an excessive $30 million spent over a four-year period on salaries for employees of the judicial bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, as well as $386 million spent by the AOC over four years on statewide services that nearly half of California's 58 trial courts don't use, including $186 million on contractors and consultants.
"Despite budget shortfalls and budget cuts, the AOC continued to provide its employees with unreasonably high salaries and generous benefits. There is a disconnect about what the AOC is doing and what the courts need," Howle said, testifying Wednesday before a panel of lawmakers from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, a budget sub-committee chaired by Jones Sawyer and Assemblymember Mark Stone who chairs the assembly's judiciary committee..
She pointed to an internal investigation of the bureaucracy by a team of 14 judges back in 2012 called the Strategic Evaluation Committee, appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to address wastefulness and mismanagement in the bureaucracy. In a lengthy report saying the bureaucracy needed to return to its first job of serving the courts of California, the SEC committee came up with 124 recommendations for reform.
Howle confirmed the criticism from many observers who said those reforms never got off the ground, and described the SEC report's conclusions as similar to her own.