Several court and legal related programs were criticized this week in one Republican senator's annual "Wastebook," which chronicles the top 100 projects that voters might consider a waste of tax dollars. The priciest of those: $322 million for a new federal courthouse in Los Angeles, a project that has been stalled for more than a decade.
Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also singled out a $500,000 science grant that went for online lawyer training, the Department of Justice's use of old x-ray technology for prisoner health care, and $500,000 for a security system at an Alabama courthouse that had to be partially shut down over privacy concerns.
Congress is looking to cut spending and reel in the national debt, so inclusion on the list could mean more than just the embarrassment of being labeled the equivalent of "A Bridge to Nowhere," the phrase now synonymous with wasteful government spending. Coburn published the report on his website.
One Michigan program was literally "flushing down taxpayer dollars," when Michigan used $10,000 from the Department of Transportation for 400 talking urinal cakes to fight drunk driving, the report said.
For the male Michiganders, one of the messages, read by a female voice, says: "Listen up. That’s right! I'm talking to you. Had a few drinks? Maybe a few too many? Then do yourself and everyone else a favor. Call a sober friend or a cab. Oh, and don't forget. Wash your hands."
The report criticizes the federal government for moving forward with a $322 million plan to construct a 600,000-square-foot federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, "despite objections from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers and government watchdogs that the project is unneeded."
The new building would replace a federal courthouse that has security and asbestos problems, but the potential cost had ballooned to $1.1 billion as of 2008. The Government Accountability Office remains critical of the latest, scaled-back plans, Coburn said in the report.
The Wastebook also criticizes a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation $500,000 to LawMeets, an online training program for rookie attorneys. The program gives students a chance to act like business lawyers, and asks them to record a video response to real-world legal problems, such as how to manage executive pay.
"While practice as a lawyer may be valuable in the law community, a product that is valuable to rising attorneys should be funded privately and science dollars saved for advancing higher-priority research endeavors," Coburn said in the report.
The report also points out that the Department of Justice could save $1.3 million per year if it used digital x-rays instead of hard copies when diagnosing prisoners, including the cost of mailing them to a new institution when a prisoner is transferred.
In Alabama, court officials used $500,000 from the Department of Justice to install security cameras in three county courthouses that are "so advanced they cannot even utilize its full capabilities without violating constitutional rights," the report states.
Each camera is "capable of high-resolution images and could be manipulated to zoom in on text messages or computer screens as well as conversations between attorneys and their clients." Court officials concluded it was best to turn off audio recording features of the cameras to avoid Constitutional problems.
"A cheaper system without audio recording technology would have undoubtedly been a smarter investment and would not have infringed upon the privacy rights of courthouse patrons – or more importantly, our nation's right to fiscal responsibility," Coburn wrote.
Coburn did not spare himself and his colleagues from criticism. Topping the list as the biggest waste of federal taxpayer money? Congress.
"Whether it was failing to hold oversight hearings, pass laws, cut unnecessary spending, or simply cast votes on amendments, the U.S. Congress let taxpayers down in 2012," Coburn wrote. "In fact, many high school student councils have been more deliberative than the U.S. Senate."