GAO says millions of dollars are wasted on federal courthouses that are too big

The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse annex in Washington is among the buildings criticized in the report as being bloated.
The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse annex in Washington is among the buildings criticized in the report as being bloated. (Susan Biddle/the Washington Post)
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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

Call it "Extreme Makeover: Courthouse Edition."

Some federal judges and court workers occupy courthouses that are bigger than necessary, according to a preliminary report by government auditors.

The Government Accountability Office revealed last week that 27 of the 33 federal courthouses built by the General Services Administration since 2000 contain about 3.6 million square feet of extra space -- or 28 percent of the total federal court space built in the last decade. The excess space has soaked up $835 million in construction costs and $51 million in annual rent and operations costs, the GAO said.

The report came at the request of a House subcommittee that oversees federal court construction. It cited three reasons for the excess space: Courthouses are being built larger than the space authorized by Congress, federal courts are overestimating their space needs, and judges aren't sharing courtrooms. The plus-size courthouses include the newer annex to the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in downtown Washington and the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse in Phoenix.

"The findings of government waste, mismanagement, and disregard for the congressional authorization process are appalling," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said last week at a hearing focused on the findings.

But Robert A. Peck, GSA Public Buildings Service commissioner, said auditors incorrectly included negative space in the atriums of tall buildings and "phantom floors" in double-height courtrooms. The incorrect measurements meant auditors mistakenly assigned normal operating and construction costs to the empty space, he said.

"We built only courtrooms requested by the judiciary and authorized by Congress," Peck said. "GSA has been forthright and transparent in all of our documents, testimony, and briefings to Congress throughout the history of our courthouse program."


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