Waste and mismanagement by judicial administration: Reggie Jones-Sawyer

Posted on January 21, 2015

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Last week a mighty ray of sunlight beamed down on an appalling example of government inefficiency and wasteful spending of precious taxpayer dollars. This sunlight came in the form of a state audit, which my office requested, of the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), a department of California’s judiciary branch.

As co-chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment and chair of the Sub-Committee on Public Safety which funds California’s courtrooms, I directed the California State Auditor to investigate potential mismanagement of state funds.

The audit released last week exposed the fact that from 2010 to 2014, the AOC wasted $30 million on lavish compensations and questionable business practices as a result of inadequate Judicial Council oversight.

According to its official responsibilities, the AOC supposedly provides administrative support to trial courts, yet the audit report revealed that wasn’t entirely factual. Through their investigation, the state auditor discovered that the courts requested only 55 percent of the AOC’s services because the office never formally surveyed courts in the first place to determine their basic needs. As a result, the office continuously funded unused services and wasted state resources.

Moreover, the AOC’s employees are paid handsomely even when compared to executive branch employees. The former receive an average salary of approximately $82,000 whereas the latter are paid on average $20,000 less.

Eight of the office’s directors were paid at least $179,000 while managing fewer than 120 employees in fiscal year 2013-14. In comparison, the director of California Department of General Services received $167,000 while managing more than 3,600 employees. Gov. Jerry Brown — an elected official — was paid a hair under $174,000. This wage disparity is staggering and completely unjustified.

The audit also highlighted the fact that the AOC continued utilizing services of contractors, consultants and temporary workers in spite of the Strategic Evaluation Committee’s recommendation to downsize and cut costs. These suggestions were ignored, and the office spent $13.5 million on 55 contractors, although it could have saved $7 million by deploying state employees in similar roles.

Other examples of the office’s blatant disregard for taxpayer money can be seen through its excessive lunch reimbursements. The audit report showed that each Administrative Office staff member was reimbursed up to $40 for business lunch or dinner, and $25 for breakfast. Spending on meals, however, went from $60,000 in 2011-12 and 12-13 fiscal years to $266,000 in 2013-14 — essentially quadrupling. I’d like to know why.

The AOC helps trial courts manage “content strategy, publishing, and metrics evaluation for social media channels including You Tube and Twitter.” The AOC rated this service as critical, yet a total of one trial court has requested this service.

Even worse, all of this irresponsible spending by the AOC coincided with $1.2 billion of budget cuts to the state’s court systems since 2011, forcing the closure of 51 courthouses and more than 200 courtrooms, according to the L.A. Times.

After years of crushing deficits and the slashing of critical funding to important health and human services for disadvantaged communities throughout California, the last thing our state needs is this kind of disregard for state funds and the flat-out waste of millions in precious taxpayer money.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees one’s right to a speedy and fair trial. However, some users experienced hours of waiting at clerk windows after driving more than 100 miles to the nearest courthouse. Is this — people being unable to even file cases because of an understaffed court system — what we consider to be “speedy”?

California families and our children are all bearing the recent costs of state government budget cuts — with prison overcrowding, increasing college tuition, K-12 classrooms overflowing, less services for the poor, crumbling infrastructure, and more.

That’s why I believe strongly that neither the Judicial Council nor the AOC should be exempted from ensuring that every penny of taxpayer money must be spent wisely, efficiently and effectively — especially when it comes to our overcrowded court system.

Yet the AOC and the Judicial Council remain oblivious — indifferent, even — to the sacrifices that nearly every other state department or agency has made. The former continued its trend of excessive spending despite having received numerous recommendations for change from different entities. The office’s responses to criticisms over its allocation of money has been underwhelming at best.

Because of this, we must take a heavy-handed approach given that the AOC has had a long track record in reckless spending and the Judicial Council has clearly abused the autonomy offered by state laws. As such, I plan to work diligently in the Assembly to ensure the courts do not receive funding until the office and the council formulate a comprehensive plan responding to the issues brought forth by this important state audit.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, represents the 59th District and is chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus.