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Friday, February 27, 2009

I Can't Say The Lexington Herald Leader Doesn't Have A Very Good Idea About AOC Audit. Read More.

Scrutiny overdue on courthouses

Chief Justice John Minton Jr. should ask state Auditor Crit Luallen to conduct a thorough review of the courthouse construction program.

Nothing less will do in light of the latest revelations about how $800 million of taxpayers' money has been spent with almost no accountability or transparency by contractors and court officials who appear to have been just a little too cozy.

The program's chief architect, Garlan VanHook, resigned Tuesday after questions arose about his failure to require general contractors to fully insure courthouse construction projects. County governments did not realize that this unconventional, and possibly illegal, practice was going on and exposing them to financial risk.

It also recently came to light that one of the companies that benefitted from the lax bonding requirements, Codell Construction, hired VanHook's brother, Willie VanHook, in November. Codell has been awarded more than half of the 65 courthouse projects overseen by Garlan VanHook since 2000.

In response, the chief justice yesterday announced that he plans to hire legal counsel with expertise in construction law to carry out an "intensive review."

Minton's on the right track. But unless he imports legal counsel from far away, such an investigation will fail to satisfy public concerns.

The perception will always be that a Kentucky law firm can't risk offending the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the courthouse construction program, or give a chief justice news he might not want to hear.

Further compromising appearances, the courthouse construction program was the creation of former Chief Justice Joseph Lambert, who Minton has put in charge of the senior judges program. Lambert's duties include assigning senior judges to hear legal cases.

Lambert's capacity to influence the appointment of judges to court cases is something a Kentucky law firm might be suspected of considering as it reviews the program that Lambert has said is his greatest legacy.

VanHook was Lambert's personal architect, designing his Rockcastle County home, before being tapped to oversee a massive public spending program that has forever altered the historic architectural fabric of some Kentucky county seats.

Because of the separation of powers, Luallen's office lacks the authority to launch an audit of the judicial branch without an invitation from the chief justice.

But what needs to be audited isn't the judicial work of the courts. It's a massive public works program managed by court administrators. The constitutional framers could not have foreseen the judiciary taking on an executive function such as a major capital construction program — and they probably would not have favored such an idea.

The courthouse building boom raises not just legal questions but also questions of policy and management.

Minton should get the auditor's office on the job as soon as possible.

Editor's comment: See my caption.

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