Category Archives: Crystal Gavel Awards 2009

Former AOC Employee Jack Urquhart Files Suit Against AOC

If you’re a regular AOC Watcher reader than you MUST know Jack Urquhart. He’s the former AOC employee who many believe is the one that set in motion what would become the strongest opposition to the AOC and the Judicial Council that either agency has ever seen.

San Francisco Superior Court Civil Courthouse

And how did one man do this and why is he a former AOC employee?  Well, because he had the AUDACITY to complain to his AOC supervisors that the AOC was spending money needlessly on conference in the midst of a severe state budget crisis. When his pleas for financial common sense were ignored, Mr. Urquhart bravely turned over to media representatives the costs of some of the AOC junkets including $82,000 for the AOC annual meeting. And when the news broke and the AOC went on the warpath to try and figure out who was responsible for leaking info to the media, Mr. Urquhart confessed.

Needless to say, the AOC’s response to his actions was anything but warm as detailed yesterday when the Daily Journal reported that Jack Urquhart filed a lawsuit against the AOC this past January in San Francisco Superior Court..

“In his suit, filed Jan. 21 in San Francisco County Superior Court, Jack Urquhart accuses the agency of violating the California Whistleblower Protections and Fair Employment and Housing acts. Urquhart’s former boss, Dianne Bolotte, and the director of their division, Kenneth Kann, are named as co-defendants in the suit that seeks damages in excess of $25,000.

During the course of that meeting, Defendant Bolotte repeatedly referred to Plaintiff as a ‘sick, angry and emotionally distraught man’ ‘beset by personal problems’, told Plaintiff that he needed ‘professional counseling’ and he needed to ‘concentrate on getting well,'” the suit said. “These and other comments lead Plaintiff to believe that he would more than likely be terminated.” Instead, Bolotte escorted Urquhart to the human resources department where she instructed an employee to prepare his retirement papers, according to the suit. Kann later sent Urquhart an e-mail supporting Bolotte’s actions and stating the only option was his retirement.

Of course considering that the lawsuit has been filed across the street from AOC headquarters in San Francisco, it goes without saying that plenty of people in that office, and throughout the state for that matter, will be folllowing this lawsuit closely.

AOC Watcher’s Crystal Gavel Award Goes to…

If you’re a regular AOC Watcher reader, you’ve probably wondered what inspired me to start a blog about the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). The answer to that is, like many things in life, rather complicated. But the main inspiration for my starting this blog is one man. And that man is Jack Urquhart.

Back in August I wrote a post about how Jack Urquhart, an AOC employee at the time, was so disturbed by the AOC’s spending for a conference for the Judicial Council he leaked the costs of the San Francisco event to the media. An article in the Daily Journal described the event and Mr. Urquhart’s actions for leaking the financial costs.

An 11-year veteran of the Administrative Office of the Courts said he was forced out of his job last month after admitting that he leaked information about a pricey judicial conference to the media.
Jack Urquhart, a senior court services analyst, said he acted out of frustration with significant costs racked up by the Judicial Council’s annual meeting in June. After telling a supervisor what he had done, Urquhart said, he was ushered to the human resources department and told that retirement was his only option.

“I didn’t argue, because it seemed to me the only other option was termination,” he said. Citing personnel policies, AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa said he could not discuss Urquhart’s employment status or respond to his allegations.

Held at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco, the Judicial Council’s three-day conference featured high-priced facilitators, a catered dinner at the California Academy of Sciences and guest rooms — including a presidential suite — for out-of-town attendees. The total price tag for the event was more than $86,000.

“It occurred to me that we could find a cheaper way to stage this meeting,” Urquhart said. The AOC could have held the conference at its San Francisco headquarters, he said, instead of spending $42,000 for meeting halls, on-site meals and hotel rooms at the Hilton.

For his actions Mr. Urquhart was quickly shown the door and forced into an early retirement. That’s when it became clear to me that Mr. Urquart had fallen victim to an agency that appeared to be more interested in its self-preservation and maintenance of the status quo. A status quo where the AOC stood unchallenged and unquestioned.  And any other AOC employee who dared to get in the way of the AOC would be treated the same as Mr. Urquart because the AOC was confident in the knowledge that its own employees were not protected by whistleblower laws.

Yes, the AOC’s overly confident, and some would argue smug, position has had the very opposite effect.  For now current employees are filing suits against the agency for the way it has treated them.  Another whistleblower dealt the agency a major blow in revealing it was assigning work for courthouse maintenance to unlicensed contractors.  A legislative committee held a hearing in Sacramento in October over the AOC.  Two legislators have now come forward promising to introduce legislation to ensure AOC employees are covered by whistleblower laws.  Judges are now stepping up and speaking out against some of the AOC’s policies and positions. The media is taking a closer look at the agency as well giving it a scrutiny that it has never faced before.

And the man that I believe started it all, a man who became a catalyst for the work to bring much wished for reform for the AOC, and served as an inspiration for my starting this blog, is Jack Urquhart.  A man who saw a wrong and sought to bring the public’s attention to it.  A man whose actions, if I may borrow a phrase from the AOC itself, have served all Californians and may eventually benefit the courts.

Crystal Gavel Nominee: Judge Charles W. McCoy of LA Superior Court

One judge in particular comes to my mind as being on the forefront of the battle to redirect the AOC’s focus away from funding other projects such as computer systems and court construction and focusing them on maintaining current court services. That judge is the Hon. Charles W. McCoy, presiding judge of LA Superior Court.

Since the middle of 2009 Judge McCoy has given presentations for the legal community and offered his thoughts to the media on what the future holds for LA Superior courts if budget cuts were to continue or if deeper cuts to court budgets were implemented in his county. He spoke of the possibility of laying off 300 court employees, which would have a ripple effect of closing courtrooms and courthouses. According to news reports it takes about 10 court employees to run a court. And if those employees are let go, well it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens next.

Judge McCoy’s solution to this problem is his suggestion that the state temporarily halt revenue that would go into court construction and redirect it to county courts for trial court operations. The following passage is taken from an article printed in the Whittier Daily News:

One possible temporary solution would be to put off the sale of a $5 billion bond issue to build new courthouses.

The bond was to be paid off by increased fees and fines – already approved by the state Legislature.

“We could use the income stream for a short period of time to support the operations of the court,” McCoy said. “When we emerge from (the recession) we could redirect that income stream back to the bonds.”

Los Angeles County’s share would be about $73 million, McCoy said.

Judge McCoy has made it very clear that this diversion of court construction funds would be temporary and that once California emerged from the recession, funding would be redirected back to court construction. It would appear to me that he is of the opinion that court construction is fine and needed. However, maintaining current court services should probably be more of a priority.

Judge McCoy faces a rather daunting opposition. He is opposed by the California Administrative Office of the Courts, Chief Justice Ronald George and the Judicial Council, and at the time of the printing of the article mentioned above, 50 out of 58 presiding judges. Unions and other groups that would have an interest in court construction have also voiced their opposition at halting court construction.

Yet even with the knowledge that he faces an opposition with deep financial pockets and strong political ties, Judge McCoy remains firm in his determination to have the redirection of court construction funds solution considered and debated. And it is for his courageous, and I believe rational, stand that I nominate Judge McCoy for a Crystal Gavel award.

In conclusion I will end with a quote from an op-ed piece written by Judge Philip K. Mautino and printed in the Press Telegram.

What sense does it make to construct empty courtrooms if there are no personnel to operate them? We estimate each courtroom requires 10 employees plus a judicial officer. On July 1, we will lay off 500 employees and close 50 courtrooms, with more to come.

This matter should be debated in the Legislature starting in January. We ask every citizen to consider this issue and to express their views to their local legislators as to whether we could postpone the issuance of these bonds, and divert the interest money for court operations.

Crystal Gavel Nominee: AOC Employee Michael Paul

My latest nominee for the AOC’s Crystal Gavel Award is one who might not even have come to notice if it weren’t for the fact that he stood up for what he believed was right. A person who currently works for the AOC and yet felt so strongly about coming forward to reveal a bureaucratic frack up on the AOC’s part that he did so knowing he would be facing the wrath of the AOC and its supporters. That person is one Michael Paul. And the frack up he revealed was the AOC’s complete incompetence in double checking that the vendors it contracted to maintain the courthouses in this state were properly licensed .

As of the writing of this post the AOC has now filed suit against Aleut Global Solutions LLC and Jacobs Facilities Inc. According to the Daily Journal in court filings the AOC claimed that both companies had breached a three-year-old contract that the companies had with the AOC. The Daily Journal referred to the complaint the AOC filed which stated that the AOC was seeking “disgorgement of ‘all compensation paid to them by the Judicial Council,’ a sum totaling more than $14.5 million over the life of the contract, an Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman said Thursday.” To make matters worse, it would appear that some within the AOC knew that the companies may not have been properly licensed and yet continued to issue work to the companies over a period of three years.

As I also said in my post about the Followers of Themis, whom I also nominated for the Crystal Gavel, none of what we now know about the incompetence on the part of the AOC to manage not only the affairs of the courts of this state but its own affairs would never have come to light if it weren’t for people like Michal Paul. Even with the knowledge that he may not be protected by current whistleblower laws Mr. Paul has nevertheless stepped forward to blow the whistle on this expensive bureaucratic frack up.

Two legislators are already stepping forward seeking to introduce legislation next year that will protect AOC employees like Mr. Paul. I sincerely hope that this legislation comes soon for the sake of other AOC employees who may be waiting in the wings to come forward with more information about the AOC’s mismanagement but are fearful of reprisal. A fear that Mr. Paul has obviously overcome.

Crystal Gavel Nominee: Alliance of California Judges

When the Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review held its hearing on the AOC in October of this year, it was no surprise to many who were present, or who later read of the proceedings, that so many judges would make the trek up to Sacramento to defend the AOC. As far as many of these judges were concerned, the AOC could do no wrong and any idea of interfering with the AOC was tantamount to treason.

And though it may have appeared at that hearing that all of California’s Superior Court judges were on the AOC’s side, it became apparent both during that hearing and even before then, that one small group of vocal and dedicated judges were not.

The Alliance of California Judges first gained notice in August when a Daily Journal article detailed how a group of judges were so disillusioned with how the AOC was handling the budget crisis facing the courts they discussed forming a new judges association. A meeting of judges in San Diego led to the eventual formation of the ACJ.

The ACJ is now on the forefront of the fight to bring more accountability and transparency to the AOC. The group has called for the affirmation of the rights of local courts and the creation of a Trial Court Advisory Group. A group consisting of:

trial judges elected by judges from the 58 county trial courts, with provisions to balance the interests of smaller and larger courts, which could advise the Judicial Council, provide oversight to the AOC, and report upon the judicial budget and judicial affairs to the public, the Legislature, the Governor, and the Judicial Council itself.

In addition the group is also seeking to encourage the legislature to protect AOC employees by placing them under whistle blower laws. A protection that current AOC employees do not have.

I’ve written many times in this blog that the judges of this state needed to take back the control that they had ceded to the AOC and the JC and that they needed to stand up for court employees who dedicate themselves to the service of Californians who enter through the courthouse doors. It would appear that with the formation of the ACJ, a supportive group of judges may have finally gotten the message.

The AOC Watcher’s 2009 Crystal Gavel Nominees

I made a comment a couple months ago that I had a potential nominee for something I was going to call the “Golden Gavel Awards.”  In my mind this award would be given to those that I felt had contributed to the cause of bringing to light all of the flaws that the Administrative Office of the Courts has.  Not so much as to mock or belittle the AOC as some would believe, and yes I’m fully aware of the tone of some of my posts, but to make the AOC a better agency not just for those who work there or who are influenced by its decisions directly, but for the general public who walk through courthouse doors almost every day in this state.

So, with that in mind, each day this week I’m going to be posting about the nominees for the AOC Watcher Crystal Gavel Award before I reveal who, in my eye, is the winner of this year’s Crystal Gavel Award.  Yes, there is no actual physical award.  And yes, it comes with no monetary, or for that matter, real value other than the value of my thanks.  But I’m sure I speak for many when I say much gratitude is owed to these person(s) for the cause of bettering the AOC.

Crystal Gavel Nominee:  The Followers of Themis

What can I say?  When I first began writing this blog I had NO idea that it would be picked up on people’s radars.  For all I knew the only people who would wind up reading the blog was me, myself, and I.  But surely enough, the blog picked up steam, picked up readers, and more importantly to me, picked up supporters who were willing to spill what they knew about what was going on in the Death Star headquarters they call the AOC.  Without these people that I nicknamed The Followers of Themis.  And in case you have no idea who Themis is, she is more commonly personified as Lady Justice.  It is she with her blindfold, scales, and sword, who adorns many courthouses throughout the world promising unbiased justice.

It is The Followers of Themis who AOC Watcher readers owe much gratitude to, for if it were not for them, we would not have known about many of the ill-advised decisions and actions taken at the AOC that showed an agency not only out of touch with the people it claims to serve, but also lacking any sense of justice for its own employees.  You know who you are Followers of Themis.  You bravely came forward and shared what you knew even as those in the AOC command began to tighten the grip.  I freely acknowledge that without your help and the information you provided, this blog may never have gotten off the ground or attracted so many readers.