Whistleblower alleges extravagant court spending

August 10, 2010 9:14:32 PM PDT
Charges of questionable and extravagant spending are being leveled against the state's judiciary. The charges come from a whistleblower and a group of judges.

These are serious charges made by a former senior staffer who worked in the Offices of the Judicial Council, the body which controls the multi-billion dollar budget for the state courts.

That whistleblower spoke to ABC7 News exclusively. He says there is a lack of accountability in the way they spend taxpayers' money.

State judicial administrators approved $8,000 to remove gum from the entrance of the Sacramento courthouse.

"We are spending untold amounts of money on projects that shouldn't be even on the radar screen," Judge Maryanne Gilliard said.

Gilliard, a member of Alliance of California Judges, calls the expense outrageous, considering the state's massive budget deficit.

"There are courts up and down the state that don't have the funds to keep their courtroom doors open, you know, Monday through Friday from eight to five," Gilliard said.

Gilliard also points to the clock in her courtroom, which was replaced even though the old one worked. In fact, all 44 courtrooms will get new clocks at an estimated cost of $20,000.

In Merced, nearly $6,000 was spent to replace plants with rose bushes on the courthouse grounds.

A work order for repairs in San Diego's courthouse was for $45,000. The work included new tiles, painting and repairs on the courtroom doors, but the $45,000 bill seemed steep so ABC7 asked a contractor to look at the work. His estimate was that it should have cost between $20,000 and $30,000. ABC7 also asked another contractor who said he would do the work for $28,000. Both estimates are more than one-third less than what it cost taxpayers.

These are examples of work orders that the Judicial Council approved last year to maintain California's courthouses. The council administers the multi-billion dollar budget for the state's courts. Its 27 members are appointed by the chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

The Judicial Council's staff is the Administrative Office of the Courts, a bureaucracy which has grown to nearly 1,000 state employees.

"You have people making decisions that become isolated and removed from the day to day working operations of the court," Judge David Lampe said.

Lampe, from Kern County, is a founding member of the Alliance of California Judges. The group advocates for reforms in the state judiciary.

"These are outrageous costs and they make no sense," he said.

Michael Paul was a senior technical analyst at the AOC. Part of his job was to review cost estimates for various projects. Paul says he uncovered fraud, waste and abuse and told his superiors what he was finding.

"The AOC knowingly used unlicensed contractors to maintain, remodel and renovate courthouses statewide," Paul said.

The AOC went to the state attorney general's office, which subsequently sued the contractors.

Paul filed a taxpayer lawsuit against his employer in early June, saying he was frustrated that the AOC was not addressing other abuses he was discovering. He was fired a month later, he says, for not following procedure in reporting what he thought was bid rigging on a project. But he believes the real reason was because he sued the AOC.

"I had embarrassed them by doing this, so it was time to get rid of me," Paul said.

The AOC responded with a written statement saying, "Mr. Paul's assertion that he was fired because of his whistleblower activities is absolutely untrue."

Paul also questioned the costs of building 52 new courthouses. Most will cost more than $1,000 per square foot.

"Those figures don't match up with any cost-estimating guides anywhere for construction costs estimating," Paul said.

By comparison, the federal government is building a new court annex in San Diego and a new courthouse in Bakersfield for $500 to $700 per square foot.

Paul says the most outrageous example is Alpine County's new $26 million courthouse that will replace the historic one. There are only 1,061 people in all of Alpine County. That adds up to $1,700 a square foot -- $24,800 per Alpine County resident.

In Kern County, the Delano courthouse will be replaced with a new one for $42 million. It will have three courtrooms. One will be empty.

"We can only afford to staff two judges in Delano and for the foreseeable future we don't see that changing," Lampe said.

That ends up being $21 million per judge.

In response to court maintenance, the AOC wrote the expenditures go through "...an exhaustive review and approval process ... before any work is undertaken."

The AOC also said, "New construction projects go through a competitive bidding process and are scrutinized by our business services office before bids are awarded."

The AOC also says two other state agencies review construction projects.

As to Paul's lawsuit, the AOC says they have not been served so they cannot respond.

Wednesday, the Assembly Accountability Committee is holding a hearing on these and other controversial issues surrounding the Judicial Council. ABC7 will be there.


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