EXCLUSIVE | Judiciary underestimated costs for building plans, report says

The federal court system failed the transparency test and underestimated projected costs with its five-year capital-projects plan, according to a congressional watchdog report obtained by The Washington Post.

The Government Accountability Office plans to release an analysis of the one-page, $1.1 billion construction proposal on Wednesday morning, before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure holds a hearing on the matter.

The watchdog report calls for a moratorium on all projects included in the capital plan, but the U.S. Judicial Conference, which oversees the courts, has objected to that idea.

Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who handles facilities issues for the judicial branch, criticized the moratorium proposal in his written testimony for the committee, calling the suggestion “wasteful, unfair and dangerous” for districts with projects in five-year plan.

(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP-Getty)
The Supreme Court undergoing renovations (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP-Getty)

“Any delay in proceeding with the Five Year Courthouse Construction Plan would be grossly unfair to the communities that have been waiting many years for desperately needed new courthouses,” Ponsor added on Tuesday.

The General Services Administration, which manages federal properties, also opposed the recommended moratorium. GSA Commissioner Dorothy Robyn argued in her written testimony that the delay could “potentially undermine our ongoing maintenance of the federal inventory and our mission to provide the courts with safe and secure, quality courthouse space.”

The watchdog report said the court system failed to factor costs associated with rent and certain phases of the development process into its projections, thereby underestimating the true price of the capital plan by about $2 billion.

The watchdog report also said the judiciary failed to follow White House and accountability office guidelines for capital planning and for justifying proposed projects. It noted that 10 of the 12 projects on the plan would not qualify for new construction under the court system’s own planning standards.

“The five-year plan submitted for approval of several billion dollars worth of projects — a one-page list of projects with limited and incomplete information — does not support the judiciary’s request for courthouse construction projects,” the report said.

The judicial conference contends that any effort to further justify its proposals would only duplicate efforts by the GSA, which provides extensive information when it asks Congress to fund the construction projects.

The federal judiciary has been at odds with the accountability office for the past several years, as the watchdog agency has produced multiple reports criticizing the court system’s construction projects.

In 2010, the accountability office found the judiciary had added more than 3.5 million square feet of excess courthouse space during the previous decade, costing taxpayers $835 million for construction and $51 million per year for maintenance.

In March, the agency issued a report saying the court system had exceeded its congressionally authorized allowance for new space by 1.7 million square feet.

The judicial conference has argued that it needs time to grow into its new facilities, but the accountability office contends that judgeship numbers have consistently fallen short of projections.

The accountability office has repeatedly urged the judiciary to share courtroom spaces between judges, but the judicial conference has resisted, especially when it comes to district judges, according to Mark Goldstein, director of infrastructure analyses for the accountability office.

The GSA plans to argue on Wednesday that it has a proven track record of right-sizing construction projects over the past few years, citing recent efforts that allowed the judiciary to scale back renovations and eliminate plans for new construction, according to Robyn’s written testimony.

“GSA has worked with the courts to revise and reduce the requirements for almost every courthouse on the five-year plan,” the statement said. “We will continue collaborating with the courts to reduce courthouses’ costs while maximizing their functionality and civic benefit.”

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics.

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E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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