Courts' 2-Billion-Buck IT Bust

FEB. 22, 2011


While courtrooms across the state are being closed, courthouse employees furloughed and criminal and civil cases taking record time to come to trial, the Administrative Office of the Courts refuses to halt the implementation of a $1.9 billion computer system. After spending nearly $2 billion on the unfinished computer system, the head of the of the administrative agency recently said he plans on moving ahead with implementation of the latest version of the expensive computer system, despite receiving a blistering report from California’s State Auditor about cost overruns and lack of oversight.

The statewide information technology system plan was to provide data sharing, cut costs and improve public access to court records and data. However, the cost of the Court Case Management System (CCMS) has increased from the original estimate of $260 million in 2004, to a staggering $1.9 billion in 2010, and will cost an additional $79 million a year to maintain, according to the Office of Technology Services.

William Vickrey, the head of the AOC, and Justice Terence Bruiniers, an appellate judge and chairman of the Judicial Council’s CCMS Executive Committee, vowed to continue implementation of the computer system. “It’s important to emphasize the audit does not recommend ending the project, Bruiniers said. “We need to move on.”

But that statement, repeated last week by Bruiniers at the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the Assembly Budget Subcommittee, angered others within the court system. The oversight hearing was about the auditor’s findings within the report titled, Administrative Office of the Courts, The Statewide Case Management Project Faces Significant Challenges Due to Poor Project Management.

“The full cost of the project is likely to reach nearly $1.9 billion,” the audit reports. “However, this amount does not include costs that superior courts will incur to implement CCMS.”

County representatives at the hearing estimated that the cost to get the statewide system up and running could be as high as $50 million. “They are building entire county courthouses for $50 million,” said Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Richvale. “I have a facebook page that cost me nothing.”

“The AOC has mismanaged this project from the beginning, ” said Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a Superior Court Judge in Sacramento in a recent Courthouse News story. “They have consistently hidden the true cost from legislative scrutiny. The AOC even mounted a campaign to prevent this audit from occurring and has named as its chairman of their CCMS Executive Committee a judge who personally testified in Sacramento against the audit,” said Gilliard.

In a statement sent out after the hearing last week Bruiniers said, “We have already fulfilled a number of key recommendations. We have increased Judicial Council oversight of the project; expanded the participation of justices, judges, court administrators, attorneys, and justice partners; and created a project management office.  We are also very close to completing an independent cost-benefit analysis.”

Bruiniers added that statewide product acceptance testing has begun with 70 testers around the state and will continue. “Now we have to demonstrate that we have met our goals, and focus on the implementation of a system that will bring the California courts into the 21st century.”

“The money being used for the computer system has not been appropriated by the Legislature – it’s coming right out of the trial court budgets,” said Sacramento presiding Judge Steve White in a CalWatchdog interview last week. White explained that the AOC has continued to use money allotted for state trial court operations, to fund the computer system costs, shorting trial court budgets and leading to the closures, furlough days and lengthy court calendars.

“If it was the worlds best model, it still wouldn’t be justified,” White said of the $1.9 billion price tag. And White added, based on additional implementation and maintenance costs, the computer system cost could rise to $2.5 or $3 billion.

White warned that it is only going to get worse. “Even in the face of the most scathing audit, they are still saying it is good,” White said of the AOC’s defense of the computer system.

White heads up the Alliance of California Judges, a group working for many different types of reforms in the judiciary. Formed on Sept. 11, 2009 “in response to the unprecedented financial crisis now facing our judicial branch,” the judges want “to insure that our courts remain open and accessible, to insure accountable local management of the California courts, to guarantee financial responsibility, to minimize statewide bureaucracy, and to insure a strong preference for local flexibility in the conduct of court affairs.” (CalWatchdog)

The alliance has been vocal about the stratospheric computer cost, as well as the system’s dysfunction and unreliability.

The scathing audit of the court administration agency was released recently by State Auditor, Elaine Howle, which blamed the AOC for countless errors and lack of oversight during the nearly 10-years the AOC has been trying to computerize the state’s trial courts.

The audit found that the AOC administrators “Did not structure the development vendor’s contract to adequately control cost and scope—over the course of seven years, the AOC entered into 102 amendments and increased the cost from $33 million to $310 million,” and ultimately disguised the actual $1.9 billion cost.

But despite the findings, the administrators and judges in charge of the computer project persist, while trial court insiders say the project should be shelved.

The Sacramento courts were a beta site for the computer system, and provided recommendations to the AOC. “Sacramento staff took part in CCMS design and presented Sacramento’s minimum requirements, some taken from our own program designed by Sacramento IT staff. AOC and its no-bid, sole source contractor, Deloitte, largely ignored these requirements,” wrote Sacramento County Superior Court Judge, Loren McMaster in a letter to the AOC. McMaster called the court computer system “idiotic” and “counter-intuitive,” and said his clerks have to take four or five extra steps to enter data that they didn’t have to do before the CCMS was in place. “Another thing that’s so stupid is that it isn’t compatible with Microsoft Word,” McMaster said.

Kern County Judge David R. Lampe, and member of the judge’s alliance wrote in Viewpoint: AOC Bureaucracy Is Bad for State Courts for The Recorder, “After seven years of development, the system runs only a small portion of case management in each of only seven counties — Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Ventura. In Los Angeles the system only operates in one small courthouse, processing roughly EIGHT small claims cases per day. Sacramento has reported  significant problems with CCMS directly related to connection to the central data management server (CTCC) in Tempe, Ariz., which is a hallmark of the CCMS proposal. These problems are sufficient to cause Sacramento to demand revisions that allow for local control of its case management data.”

The AOC is an administrative arm of the trial courts, and not a part of the judiciary. Judges in the state have charged that the AOC lacks accountability, and continues to grow and spend, depleting trial court budgets. Last March, the Daily Journal reported that the AOC had been on a hiring spree for the past two years, spending well over $2 million on temporary staffing agencies for “important projects.” But the projects were not identified.

Last week, some court employees traveled from as far away as San Diego to testify at the hearing that the expensive computer system doesn’t work, and offered examples, including how long it takes to perform the 26 steps required to open a judge’s court calendar.

Several supporters of the CCMS also spoke during public comments, including an attorney who said he could not operate without the CCMS system, and a member of the public who said he relied heavily on the public record data provided by the system for a lawsuit he was involved in.

Despite having Silicon Valley innovation and technical support right in California’s backyard, Judge White said the computer contract was awarded on a no-bid, sole-source basis to a non-IT contractor. According to White, this has resulted in “mistakes being made in the CCMS project that have been made before in other computer systems.”

Mounting dissatisfaction and criticism with the massive computer project led the AOC to form “oversight” committees several weeks ago. “The judges who actually use CCMS uniformly, and enthusiastically support CCMS,” wrote Justice Terence Bruiniers in the a recent memo from the committees.

That statement brought immediate responses from judges in San Diego, where the system has been in place. “It is also not worth anything like what we are, or will be paying for it. It is slow, labor intensive, and does little that off the shelf programs could not have been modified to do for much less investment,” wrote San Diego Superior Court Judge Earl Maas, who is also identified as a technology expert.

In the week before the budget committee hearing, one judge in Los Angeles called for the removal of Vickrey.  Because of surmounting cost overruns as well as the scandal over the “no-bid,” multimillion-dollar deal with a consultant for the development of the computer system, Judge Stephen Czuleger wrote a 6-page letter to Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, and three other judges, as well as to the court’s executive officer, questioning the honesty and competence of the court administrative director Vickrey, and accused the administrative office of keeping a double set of books.

“First, Deloitte was not being honest and forthcoming,”’ wrote Czuleger. “Second, the AOC would award the contract to Deloitte regardless. Deloitte clearly views CCMS as a cash cow, and the AOC as its partner in its profit scheme. The agency’s actions in steering the contract and failing to reasonably oversee it were followed by an effort to hide the true cost of the system,” said Czuleger. “The AOC was giving the Legislature one figure while internally booking another.”

In the report, the state auditor assessed 51 of the 58 county superior courts. Of those, 18 reported that their existing IT systems for court case management already served their needs, 32 reported that their current system would serve them in the near future, and only 12 were either positive or neutral about the new CCMS system.

Judge White referred to a letter he recently wrote to Bruiniers. “Permit me to observe that the committee you chair was selected not for subject matter competence or a working familiarity with CCMS,” White wrote. “Like you, precious few of your committee members actually use CCMS. They, however honorable, were not selected for their expertise or experience with CCMS. Meanwhile, members of our court who know CCMS inside and out were purposely excluded from your committee — precisely because they know the subject.”

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is also receiving criticism by the state’s judges for not taking a more proactive stand on the controversial computer system, expressing instead, more concern about California falling behind other states in its ability to deliver justice without the implementation of CCMS. “When I am asked why we continue to invest in CCMS even in the face of budget reductions, my response is that I cannot think of a better investment in the future of our courts, or for that matter our courts here and now,” said Hon. Cantil-Sakauye in a press release issued by the Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts.

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