WASHINGTON — Fresno's federal courthouse grew bigger and more costly than necessary as part of a nationwide overbuilding trend, government auditors say in a hotly disputed new report.
The auditors say the downtown Fresno courthouse and 31 of the 32 other federal courthouses completed since 2000 grew too big, primarily because they exceeded what Congress ordered. The overbuilding cost taxpayers more than $835 million, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.
When it opened in 2005, for instance, Fresno's Robert E. Coyle U.S. Courthouse and associated parking spanned 495,912 square feet. Auditors noted this was 67,536 square feet more than was authorized. The courthouse's $133 million construction cost was $13 million more than originally anticipated.
"A lack of oversight ... and a lack of focus on building courthouses within the congressional authorized size contributed to these size overages," the GAO auditors concluded.
In the most dramatic example, a new federal courthouse in Phoenix ended up 50 percent larger than lawmakers authorized.
The auditors attributed the overbuilding to judicial overestimates of how many judges would be on duty, as well as design modifications and judges' resistance to sharing courtrooms. All told, auditors believe 3.5 million square feet of extraneous space have been built since 2000.
But federal judges and property administrators challenge the report and denounce the new assessment as biased and inaccurate. Some judges say the auditors miss the biggest reasons for apparent overbuilding.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii, the Fresno-based chief judge of California's Eastern District, said Wednesday that the Robert E. Coyle Courthouse was appropriately sized based on estimates of how many judges would be hired. The building has six district court courtrooms, only three of which currently are used.
"The reason is that we haven't gotten the judges that we've asked for, and that's Congress' responsibility," Ishii said Wednesday. "We really are caught in a quandary not of our making, and not in our control."
Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill authored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would temporarily add one new judge to the Eastern District. The bill still has a way to go before it becomes law.
Further disputing the GAO assessment, Ishii added that "we need to have our own courtrooms," rather than having judges share them, in order to have courtrooms "readily available" when necessary.
Retired U.S. District Judge Robert Coyle, who led the long effort to authorize and build the Fresno courthouse, could not be reached to discuss the project.
Ishii met with GAO auditors during their research, but he was just starting to review the final report in detail on Wednesday. Martha Johnson, chief of the General Services Administration, cited "serious concerns" with the 110-page report formally made public Tuesday and stressed that she "takes exception" to many of the conclusions.
"The dollar amounts are contrived, largely based on phantom space and faulty cost calculations," Johnson argued, adding that some cost overruns came from unusual construction cost inflation.
James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, added that "we emphatically dispute" the contention that too much extra space was built and called the report both "misinformed" and "regrettable."
"It appears that the audit team's zeal to meet certain objectives may have compromised its ability to be entirely objective and fair," Duff said.
The auditors presented their report to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, some of whose members have raised concerns about federal construction excesses. Because of the potential political sensitivities, lawmakers like to be kept abreast of cost overruns and the reasons for them.