SACRAMENTO — A federal judge Wednesday gave state officials nearly three weeks to explain how they will transfer $250 million to the overseer of medical care in state prisons.
In his order, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson stopped short of finding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Controller John Chiang in contempt of court for refusing to turn over a total of $8 billion for new prison medical facilities sought by the overseer, J. Clark Kelso.
"This is an opportunity for the state to bring itself into partial compliance," Kelso said in an interview. "It obviously leaves a big chunk of the remaining funding unresolved. We're going to take this a step at a time."
Kelso was appointed by Henderson as part of a court case to manage prison healthcare so poor that inmates were dying from medical mistakes and lack of treatment.
Kelso previously asked the judge to hold the two officials in contempt for defying an earlier court order to fund the construction program he has planned.
The state has argued that the order did not obligate it to pay and that it is precluded by state and federal law from doing so.
Instead of ruling on the contempt issue, Henderson said he would first conduct a hearing Oct. 27 in San Francisco to expedite the transfer of an initial $250 million that Kelso says is already available from a separate prison-building plan state lawmakers approved last year.
Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the state would be ready to address the issue at the hearing.
Kelso said that if he receives the money, it will pay for his office's operations into next year. He intends for construction to begin in February, and says he needs a total of $3.5 billion from the deficit-plagued state for the fiscal year that ends in June.
The judge also granted Kelso's attorney permission to depose Schwarzenegger's finance director, Michael Genest, and two of his aides. They may be deposed about potential sources of state funding for Kelso's construction projects.