Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell promised lawmakers yesterday that the state's court system would move quickly to fix its procurement and computer security systems after auditors uncovered serious lapses in both areas.
Bell told the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Audits that the judiciary, criticized by auditors for cost overruns and no-bid contracting, will adopt a comprehensive procurement policy by the end of the year.
In one case, auditors said, the judiciary has allowed the price of a land-records system to swell from an initial estimate of $18 million to $51 million. That system, which the courts had told the legislature could be rolled out statewide this year, will take until 2006 to complete, according to the audit.
In response to another audit, Bell promised to remedy gaps in the courts' computer systems by year's end. The auditors identified several problems in judicial computers that could potentially allow hackers to invade court data systems and destroy or alter traffic case records, Circuit Court case disposition files and other sensitive data.
Audit manager Steve Jersey said the state Department of Legislative Services did not find any instances in which court data had been compromised but did find serious weaknesses in password protection, access controls and "firewalls" closing it to the Internet.
The sometimes combative Bell struck a conciliatory tone as he acknowledged that the auditors had found genuine problems. "We are going to make sure we're in compliance," he told the lawmakers.
Phil Braxton, state director of judicial information systems, said the courts have addressed about half of the recommendations in the audit, which was issued in April. But several legislators said they were quite concerned about the security lapses.
Del. David G. Boschert, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said the judicial computer system "embarrasses the legislature," adding: "Someone was in dereliction of duty in the past."
Legislative investigators also criticized the judiciary for failing to establish comprehensive procurement policies to ensure that taxpayers got the best value for their money. The audit cited 30 procurements totaling about $2.2 million that were made without competitive bidding.
Auditors noted that the judiciary is exempt from the state procurement law that governs executive agencies, but they charged that the court system had failed to adopt consistent standards of its own -- even after being criticized for the same failings in three previous audits.
The report noted the case of a land-record system installed by a contractor in 10 of the state's 24 circuit courts between 1995 and last year.
Auditors said the judiciary conducted competitive bidding when awarding the contract for a pilot project in Prince George's County in 1994. But after the pilot, the courts used the same vendor in nine other counties without rebidding the contract, renegotiating the agreement or monitoring the contractor's costs.
This was the project in which the price tag has grown from $18 million to $51 million -- an overrun that drew expressions of disgust from lawmakers.
Sen. Patrick J. Hogan appeared incredulous as Dan Coleman, the court system's procurement director, called the $18 million "a ballpark figure" offered by the contractor, rather than a signed agreement.
The Montgomery County Democrat questioned how legislators could be sure the $51 million estimate wouldn't mushroom to $150 million.
Frank Broccolina, the state courts administrator, said he is confident the current estimate will hold. He said he would take personal responsibility for delivering the system at that price -- a position echoed by Bell.
Auditors said the procurement problems also affected numerous smaller contracts. They noted the example of a $262,483 purchase of office equipment and furniture without competitive bidding. According to the audit, seven local vendors could have supplied the same brand of furniture as the chosen contractor.
Audit manager Gregory Hook said: "There was no legitimate reason for this to be a sole-source procurement."
Hogan said he wants to take a look at legislative remedies such as bringing the judiciary under state procurement laws. "There should be penalties for coming in over budget and over time," he said. "I think we've got to be more punitive."