While Judges Attend Conference in Maui, Denham Leads Subcommittee Hearing on GSA Plans to Waste

Aug 17, 2012 Issues: Government Waste
While Judges Attend Conference in Maui, Denham Leads Subcommittee Hearing on GSA Plans to Waste

Los Angeles, CA – A Congressional hearing in Los Angeles today focused on the General Services Administration’s (GSA) plan to needlessly build a new $400 million courthouse and create another empty federal building.  Neither the head of GSA nor any judges could appear today to testify why they feel the new LA courthouse is necessary, although judges were able to attend a reported $1 million conference in Maui.

Today’s hearing, highlighting the problem of the GSA wasting taxpayer money on empty and underutilized federal buildings across the country, is one of a series held this Congress by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. 

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), Chairman of the Economic Development Subcommittee, led today’s hearing at the Edward R. Roybal Courthouse to also focus on the potential for stopping this wasteful project from moving forward.  The Roybal Courthouse was constructed in 1993, and LA also has the Spring Street Courthouse, which will likely be abandoned if a new courthouse is built.

GSA has thus far spent approximately $60 million on acquisition and planning for building a third courthouse.  Despite opposition to the plan from the Transportation Committee and the Economic Development Subcommittee, as well as concerns by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the GSA plans to spend another $340 million to construct the building.  The GAO testified that the existing Roybal Courthouse could accommodate the number of judges and all scheduled courtroom time.

The GAO and a representative of the GSA testified at today’s hearing.  However, the GSA’s Acting Administrator and a representative of the courts were unavailable.

“The purpose of the hearing today is to continue our investigation into the billions of dollars wasted on vacant and mismanaged properties, and to highlight the waste we can avoid here today by halting the construction of an unneeded courthouse in LA,” Denham said.

Chairman Denham continued, “I am extremely disappointed there is no representation from the courts here today.  It seems outrageous that we are here in LA – physically inside a courtroom in the Roybal courthouse – yet there are no judges available to come to this hearing and testify.

“It’s even more troubling many of them found time to attend a conference in Maui this week, but are not available to testify today to justify spending another $340 million of taxpayer funds.

“After all the waste this committee has exposed on lavish conferences and training sessions, it is mindboggling the courts would host a conference in Maui that reportedly is costing the taxpayer more than $1.1 million – significantly more than the lavish Las Vegas conference hosted by GSA – with a total of 2,760 ‘room nights’ in ocean view suites and at least one ‘palace’ suite.

“In addition, it appears the ‘special’ rates the hotel is providing for this conference extended three days prior and three days after the conference, so it wouldn’t be surprising if today judges are still in Maui, even though the conference ended yesterday.

“I am also disappointed that GSA’s Acting Administrator has yet again chosen not to appear at our hearing.  Neither Mr. Tangherlini nor anyone from GSA’s headquarters showed up for the Committee’s hearing on the wasteful spending unearthed in yet more GSA conferences and exorbitant bonuses.  No one from GSA’s headquarters showed up last week in Miami.  And, today, Mr. Tangherlini has chosen not to show up to explain spending $400 million for a courthouse that is not needed.

“It is amazing; on the one hand, Mr. Tangherlini has removed from GSA’s regional offices the authority to approve conferences, yet he defers to the regions on spending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, here in LA and also more recently signing a $351 million lease at the World Trade Center.”

Friday’s hearing was the sixth in a series of field hearings held by Denham’s Subcommittee to focus on the need to save taxpayers’ money by improving management of federally owned assets and property. 

“Just last week, we held a hearing in the vacant Dyer courthouse in Miami, Florida which has sat vacant for over four years.  The judges in Miami justified the need for a new courthouse telling us that by now they would have 33 judges.  But those projections never materialized and now we have a vacant courthouse sitting in the middle of downtown Miami, vacant space in the new courthouse, and abandoned court space in a nearby federal building. Miami is an example of what will happen here in LA if a new courthouse is built,” Denham said.

Mark Goldstein, the GAO’s Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, testified about the waste in GSA’s courtroom construction initiative, both broadly and as it pertains to the proposed Los Angeles project.

“The federal judiciary and the GSA are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative,” said Goldstein in prepared testimony.  “In 2010, GAO found that more than a quarter of the new courthouse space was unneeded, costing $835 million to construct and $51 million annually to rent, operate, and maintain.”

According to Goldstein, “Each of the challenges leading to extra space – and the associated extra costs – in courthouses that GAO identified in 2010 apply to the L.A. courthouse project.  First, the initial design of the L.A. courthouse project exceeded the congressionally authorized size by 13 courtrooms and over 260,000 square feet.  Second, 16 fewer judges are located in Los Angeles than were originally projected, a change that calls into question the space assumptions that the original proposals were based on.  Third, officials did not fully take into consideration the advantages of courtroom sharing, again planning more courtrooms than necessary.”

A new third courthouse with 24 new courtrooms, combined with the 25 courtrooms in the Roybal Courthouse, would provide a total of 49 courtrooms.

But Goldstein said, “Applying the courtroom-sharing model that we developed, the 45 current district judges would need 25 courtrooms to adequately address all scheduled courtroom time – the number of district courtrooms that GSA currently has planned for the Roybal Courthouse.  Even this model would leave the courtrooms unused much of the time, since 60 percent of scheduled court events are canceled or postponed within one week of the event’s original date.”

Despite the clear need to reassess the necessity of a third courthouse in Los Angeles, in light of the faulty judge projections, outdated planning models, and failure to include all relevant information used to first justify the project in 2000, neither the judiciary nor the GSA has indicated any intent to reevaluate the project’s viability.

“Judiciary officials said the judiciary has not applied its new process for prioritizing projects to the L.A. courthouse project because it was grandfathered under the old process and, like 10 of the 12 courthouses on the current 5-year plan for construction, will not be reevaluated under the new process,” said Goldstein.  “However, if the L. A. courthouse project were reevaluated, it is not clear that it would retain the same high priority status from when it was first justified in 2000.”

Chairman Denham summed up to potential for waste: “The result?  Like Miami, we will see hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on a new courthouse while vacant space lingers for years, all paid for by the taxpayer.  We know for a fact we will have too much space, costing the taxpayer significant sums, if a new courthouse is built in LA.”

The House has passed Chairman Denham’s bill, the Civilian Property Realignment Act (H.R. 1734), to address this problem by implementing common-sense policies to help eliminate government waste and save billions of taxpayer dollars by selling or redeveloping high-value properties, consolidating federal space, maximizing the utilization rates of space, and streamlining the disposal of unneeded assets. 

Click here for testimony and additional information from today’s hearing.