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Audit blasts financial management
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An audit released Wednesday criticizes the financial management of California’s court system, saying questionable spending by the agency that helps administer its budget cost cash-strapped courts millions of dollars.

The Administrative Office of the Courts paid some of its staff members more than the governor and could save $7 million annually by using state employees instead of contractors and temporary employees in some cases, the audit found.

It questioned a total of $30 million in compensation and other expenses over a four-year period ending in 2013 and said the Judicial Council, which oversees the administrative office, was not adequately monitoring the office’s spending.

“Public confidence in the judicial system stems, in part, from confidence that the system’s administrators manage its operations efficiently and appropriately,” State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote. “This report concludes that questionable fiscal and operational decisions by the Judicial Council and the AOC have limited funds available to the courts.”

California’s court system — the largest in the country — has faced budget cuts in recent years that have seen scores of courtrooms closed and thousands of employees laid off. Its budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year was $3.1 billion.

In a statement, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the council was already in the process of implementing some of the audit recommendations. Cantil-Sakauye heads the Judicial Council.

“This audit, while confined in scope, gives us another useful tool to help us make progress,” she said.

The council has a new administrative director who has been conducting his own assessment of the organization, and it is creating a working group to address the audit’s findings, Cantil-Sakauye said.

Lawmakers expressed concern about the audit.

“Californians deserve equal, timely access to justice through a responsibly managed court system,” Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, the new chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who requested the audit, said it confirmed his concerns that the judicial system was not as effective and efficient as it could be.

He plans to push for an annual independent audit of the court system’s management.

“We need to let judges be judges, and we need to give them the resources of people who know how to manage and do administrative duties,” he said.

The audit found that eight of the nine office directors at the Administrative Office of the Courts were paid more than $179,000. That exceeds the salaries of the governor and other high-ranking state officials with broader responsibilities, according to the audit.

The council had already initiated a review of employee compensation before the audit, Steve Jahr, former director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in an interview.

The audit also questioned a fleet of 66 vehicles maintained by the office and payments that it said cost trial courts an indefinite amount of additional funding.