Whitewash

     It was 2010 and the chief justice’s “accountability” committee was new.
     The old chief justice set it up on his way out, and he put the incoming chief justice in the chair.
     The governator, Arnold, was on his way out too. California’s economy, like the nation’s, was doing a duck dive and the court budget was going down with it. A supremely foolish software project called the Court Case Management System continued to plow through millions of dollars.
     Hundreds of judges were getting mad.
     Along came the accountability committee, and most of us thought it could be a good thing. The vast bureaucracy created by the old chief sure needed a dose of accountability. And it would be a test for the new chief.
     Maybe we were a little naive.
     The outgoing chief, Ron George, said the purpose of his new committee was to “promote accountability, transparency and understanding.”
     So I instructed our reporter to ask the chair to open it up. I figured the chair had the discretion to allow the press to attend, and indeed she did. But through her spokeswoman at the time, the incoming chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, denied our request.
     She subsequently led the committee to OK a 3.5% retroactive pay raise for the already overpaid members of a bloated bureaucracy — at a time when the courts were clearly diving into financial trouble.
     In retrospect, that meeting told us all we needed to know about the chance for reform of the San Francisco-based court bureaucracy. There was no wind of change, there would be no reform.
     Since the committee intended to promote “accountability, transparency and understanding” was doing none of those things, what then was its purpose. Only through time could that be divined.
     One clue is that over the years the items on its agenda have often involved pay raises and technology projects, the two areas that have brought the most intense storms of criticism from the Legislature.
     In our back issues, for example, the very first reference to an accountability committee agenda item involved a plan to tap trial court funds for $19 million for the infamous CCMS project. The next reference to an accountability agenda item had to do with the 3.5% retroactive pay hike.
     The committee then went dormant for a long time.
     In 2012, a different committee did hold parts of the bureaucracy accountable, proposing a long list of reforms. That “strategic evaluation” committee was pretty loud at first, then stone-cold silent.
     We recently tried to interview the chair and the members for a story on what results they believe they have achieved. But we were met with the silence of the tomb, a total shut down of their voices, despite dozens of phone calls, emails, interview appointments made and broken, all involving judges formerly willing to comment.
     They have been completely muffled.
     In their list of reforms, of which they no longer speak, and of which, in truth, very few have been implemented, there was a proposal to reorganize the bureaucracy. That proposal was co-opted so fast it made your head spin.
     The chief justice simply transferred three of the most powerful people in the bureaucracy to the proposed positions, a bureaucratic game of musical chairs. With a catch.
     She wanted hefty raises to accompany the big switcheroo.
     So what committee would get hauled out of time’s dustbin on very short notice to give those pay hikes the false imprimatur of financial certification based on reason and consensus — you guessed it.
     Without any demonstrated need, without any comparison to much lower salaries in other California agencies or equivalent positions in other states, even without minutes, the pay hikes were rammed through the accountability committee. The chief was asking for it, she wanted a decision right away, and they knew what to do.
     Afterwards, the committee again went largely quiet, meeting only intermittently, until last week.
     With nothing but a cursory presentation from the staff, it OK’d a request for $5 million for a mini-CCMS project that would link trial court case info to other state agencies, an explicit goal of the long-defunct and discredited CCMS. The only judges to vote against it were from Orange County and Los Angeles, two of the most ardent CCMS critics.
     So I asked our reporter why this project did not come through the technology committee, as it seems it should. She said it was going to be approved first by the accountability committee.
     That’s when I understood the committee’s function. It has nothing to do with accountability, and it has all to do with quick approval of the bureaucracy’s latest plan to blow some serious public money. More than anything, the gift from the old chief to the new chief was a magic wand that, when in need, will sprinkle financial approval over a pet project. It is a whitewash committee.
     

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