State courts’ top bureaucrat resigns

A former Alameda County Superior Court executive from Danville resigned his post as the California court system’s interim top bureaucrat yesterday, months after an investigative report detailed lavish spending on food, drink and hotels even while cash-strapped courts cut their services. (ed. note: Please see update at bottom of this post.)

Ron OverholtRonald Overholt, 59, submitted his resignation to California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Wednesday. The Judicial Council is meeting in closed session today to choose a new interim director for the Administrative Office of the Courts while the national search for a permanent director continues; Overholt said he’ll stick around long enough to ensure a smooth transition.

“My decision is based on a number of factors,” Overholt said in a news release issued this morning. “Among them is that the position of Administrative Director of the Courts has become a lightning rod for controversy, impacting the focus on budget discussions, Judicial Council governance of the judicial branch, and the AOC itself. By making this difficult choice, I hope that my decision will help refocus attention on the critical issues at hand—budget restoration, the future of the branch, and the stability of the AOC.”

Cantil-Sakauye, in the same release, called Overholt’s decision understandable but unfortunate, and said his departure “is a great loss not only for the AOC but also for the state judicial branch. But we respect his judgment that a transition is necessary at this time for him and for the court system he has served so well.”

She said his service since last July as the Administrative Office of the Courts’ interim director was “exemplary and has served to enhance access to justice and public trust and confidence in our justice system.”

San Diego’s Channel 10 news, an ABC affiliate, reported in November that Overholt and his predecessor, longtime AOC Director William Vickrey, since 2009 had “been spending tax dollars on steaks, martinis and hotel stays” with trips to Vail, Colo.; Charlotte; Boston; Santa Fe, N.M.; Denver; Indian Wells; and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, courts across the state have had to cut workforces and service hours in order to stay afloat amid deep budget cuts.

This sparked some lawmakers’ ire. “Spending hundreds of dollars on steak and lobster and alcoholic beverages is just wrong and it’s out of touch and it’s got to stop,” Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, told Channel 10.

Fletcher has been on the warpath against the AOC as recently as last week for what he says are excessive construction costs, salaries and pensions as well as a statewide court computer system for which costs have spiraled out of control:

In today’s news release, Overholt noted that the past three budget years have “created unprecedented challenges for the state and prompted a reassessment of resources and priorities for all areas of government” and led to deep cuts and reorganizations at the AOC.

“In the anxiety-generating climate of this fiscal crisis, the AOC’s role in serving the council to advance access to justice on a statewide basis has unfairly become an easy target,” he said. “Every organization has room for improvement, and where merited, the AOC has taken corrective action and is continuing to do so. Where issues raised have been without merit, we have worked hard to correct misinformation. AOC directors, managers, and staff have devoted incredible time and effort on a daily basis to do more with less and to deliver critical services to the courts and the public.”

Overholt was the AOC’s chief deputy director for 11 years before taking the interim director’s job last summer. Before that, he was the Alameda County Superior Court’s executive officer for nine years and it’s second-in-command for three years; earlier still, he worked in the San Diego County Superior Court.

UPDATE @ 4:12 P.M.: Cantil-Sakauye just announced that the Judicial Council has approved Jody Patel as the AOC’s new interim administrative director, effective next Tuesday, Feb. 14. Patel said in a news release that she’s honored but doesn’t intend to seek the job permanently.

“When the permanent director comes on board, I hope that I can transfer to him or her a well-functioning organization and I will help in any way I can with the transition,” she said.

Patel has served since 2006 as the AOC’s regional administrative director, representing the state courts in meetings around the state and serving as a liaison to trial courts. Earlier, she had been the Sacramento County Superior Court’s executive since 2001.

UPDATE @ 3:50 P.M. FRIDAY: AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa just sent me his office’s refutation of the Channel 10 report on Overholt’s and Vickrey’s spending. Read it in its entirety, after the jump…

The 10News story is riddled with errors and very misleading to the public.

The story claims that Ron Overholt and Bill Vickrey have been spending tax dollars on “rooms, flights, drinks, and dinners.” No taxpayer dollars were spent on alcohol; all travel was business-related and required for their jobs; and all meal expenses were reimbursed only at the state’s travel and business meal rates. The news station was provided with all the appropriate records. It did not ask for explanations about the specific items showcased in its story. Nor did they post the relevant records that would have explained this information.

Here’s an example of some glaring errors. The story claims that Mr. Overholt “spent $720 for two dinners at a French restaurant and took colleagues out for a $1,215 dinner at a steakhouse on San Francisco Bay.”

The truth is that the dinner at L’Olivier was for 40 attendees at the state’s travel meal rate of $18 per person. The attendees paid Mr. Overholt who used his personal credit card to pay the bill, then submitted a claim for reimbursement. This fact is clearly reflected in the records provided to 10News in August.

Also the $1,215 meal was for 27 attendees of a Judicial Council dinner. Again, attendees paid Mr. Vickrey who paid the bill with his personal credit card. Mr. Vickrey filed an expense claim for just $486, which was the total cost for 27 attendees at $18 per person. The record was also provided to 10News in August.

Mr. Overholt filed a expense claim for a hotel stay in San Francisco. Contrary to the 10News story, Mr. Overholt does not live in San Francisco—he lives more than 30 miles way. His stay at a hotel was related to a three-day Judicial Council meeting, in which meetings were held late and started early. Members of the Judicial Council stayed at the hotel for the state rate. Ron is taxed on the amount he is reimbursed for that stay.

The trips that Mr. Overholt and Mr. Vickrey took were done on behalf of the public and the courts. One trip to Washington, D.C. was part of an effort to obtain federal stimulus funds. The other trips were to the California Judges Association annual and mid-year meetings, the Conference of Chief Justices and the National Center for State Courts – all parts of their regular duties as heads of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

It is very disappointing that 10News was provided all of this information in August, yet the station never asked us to justify what they called “lavish spending” before airing the story. We expect professional journalists to produce fair, balanced and accurate stories and it is sad that 10News failed to meet those standards with this story.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.