Supervisors Backed Off Criticism of Jail Phones After Contributions From Vendor

Orange County Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer.

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Orange County Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer.

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The concern coming from Orange County supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer was palpable at a supervisors’ meeting in June 2014.

Both took aim at the cost of inmate phone calls at the county’s jails, which is $4 per phone call plus other fees, even if the call is just one or two minutes long.

“Those fees are astronomical,” said Nelson, who along with Spitzer isn’t typically known to stand up on behalf of inmates. “There’s a huge markup” for the companies that provide phone services to jails, he added.

Spitzer’s comments were also impassioned.

“I do believe we have to do whatever we can to make sure inmates can have good communications with their family, because when they re-enter society, those relationships are what are gonna keep them from coming back [to jail],” Spitzer said.

But fast-forward a few months to November 2014, when a new jail phones contract went before supervisors, and the supervisors’ concern seemed to have melted away. The contract called for the exact same prices – $4 per call plus fees – yet there was not a peep of opposition from Nelson or Spitzer, who voted for it.

Worth at least $4.3 million per year in revenue to the county, the contract was approved on a 4-1 vote, with then-Supervisor Janet Nguyen the sole opposition. Nguyen’s vote meant that Spitzer and Nelson would have had a majority if they wanted to turn down the contract until the call prices were lowered.

So what changed their minds?

One possible factor is that on June 30, 2014, just days after Spitzer raised his concerns, the jail phone company, Global Tel-Link Corporation, contributed $1,900, the maximum possible, to his re-election campaign.

Then, on Oct. 13, 2014, Nelson received a $1,900 contribution from the company, which is represented by well-connected lobbyist Christopher Townsend.

(Click below or here to watch a video of Nelson and Spitzer’s comments and shift in position.)

 

Asked about his change in position amid campaign contributions, Spitzer said he was under the impression that supervisors were restricted in what they could do because of upcoming plans by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to lower jail phone prices.

“I don’t agree with [the] connection” between campaign contributions and the change in position, Spitzer said in a text to a Voice of OC reporter. “I believed my hands were tied by the regulatory body which administers phone rates,” he added, referring to the FCC.

But Spitzer couldn’t point to anything specific that would support his claim. In fact, the FCC didn’t have any pricing rules for local calling in jails at the time, a spokesman for the federal agency confirmed.

And at a supervisors’ meeting last October, Spitzer was told by then-County Counsel Nick Chrisos that the FCC didn’t “have any authority over intrastate calls.”

Finally, even if there were FCC restrictions, as Spitzer claimed, following through on his proclaimed concern about high prices would have actually made the county more likely to be in compliance with the FCC.

Nelson, meanwhile, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

One thing that could keep supervisors from demanding the contract be cut is the effects the cuts could have on the county budget. The contract generates at least $4.3 million per year to the county, and an unknown amount to Global Tel-Link.

As supervisors considered the contract, Sheriff’s Department staff warned that reducing the phone prices would probably lead to cuts in services for inmates, or require that county general fund dollars be used to maintain those services.

That’s because the county’s revenue from the contract is put into an “inmate welfare fund,” which is used for services like an extra day of visiting at the jails.

There’s “potential layoffs” if supervisors don’t keep the funding going, Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea told supervisors at the meeting last October.

Amid those concerns, Nguyen directed the sheriff’s department to report back to supervisors with how much it would cost for the county to charge fairer prices to inmates. It’s unclear what happened to that request.

Most of the $4 million in spending from the fund last year went to staff salaries, according to a sheriff budget document, but it doesn’t say what type of staff is paid through the phones revenue. Sheriff’s officials didn’t return messages seeking that information.

The decision to keep the same prices infuriated local gadfly William Fitzgerald, who gave supervisors a piece of his mind just before they voted on the contract last November.

“Since most of those who are incarcerated are from poor families, it is [these] low-income parents that these cruel board of supervisor members will seek to cheat, by overcharging over $4 million a year for telephone calls to families in distressed situations,” Fitzgerald said.

“These supervisors should be embarrassed for taking dirty money from these political donors.”

Nelson and Spitzer cast their votes without responding to Fitzgerald’s remarks.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

  • gordon_wagner

    That’s disgraceful. Naked corruption. Why aren’t they arrested? That is criminal behavior.

  • Justin Case

    Votes changing after campaign contributions? I’m shocked, that such a thing could be happening with the Board of Supervisors. They keep telling us how honest and transparent they are. This must be a coincidence.

    Nothing to see here. Move along.

  • Nick, I called and spoke to you about this despite your allegation because this is a serious public policy issue that needs attention. Here is the link to the FCC report https://www.fcc.gov/search/#q=15-136A1. The point of your piece is to show the hypocrisy of the statements made and then a vote not to act. I clearly explained to you that the FCC had not yet ruled when the item came back to the Board. I was told by the Sheriff’s Department and CEO that once the FCC ruled that the contract and all of its components would be scrutinized. The bid is a package of items based on rates charged for all types of calls. I now have every expectation that given the FCC ruling that the Sheriff’s Department will advise the Board of its options since the FCC ruling will certainly impact the pricing structure.

    To simply connect votes to campaign contributions is too naive and simplistic. I recently terminated the County’s relationship with the GPS electronic monitoring bracelets company because of its incompetence. That entity was a long time supporter. I know the Voice of OC can do better than this.
    Below is the FCC Fact Sheet–certainly not a simple public policy issue. It took a decade for the FCC to rule on these complaints about excessive charges.

    “FACT SHEET: Ensuring Just, Reasonable, and Fair Rates for Inmate Calling Services

    Today, Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn ask their fellow commissioners to consider an

    item that will ensure that the rates for inmate calling services (ICS) are just, reasonable, and fair for

    all types of calls: local, long distance, and international. Under the leadership of Commissioner

    Clyburn as acting Chair, in 2013 the FCC capped interstate calling rates, reining in high rates for longdistance

    calls across state lines.

    Now, in partnership with Commissioner Clyburn, Chairman Wheeler is proposing to cap rates for ALL

    ICS calls – local, long-distance, and international – while limiting or banning excessive fees on calls.

    In combination, these reforms ensure that rates will be just, reasonable and fair with robust security

    features and take into account the unique nature of serving jails versus prisons.

    Studies have shown that contact between inmates and their families and loved ones during

    incarceration reduces recidivism. These reforms will help inmates and their families stay in touch by

    making calling more affordable, and benefit society as a whole by helping inmates transition more

    smoothly back into society upon their release. The Commission will vote on the item at the

    Commission’s October 22 Open Meeting.

    Key Reforms

     Establishes caps on all inmate calling rates

    o These new caps reduce the average rates for the vast majority of inmate calls substantially,

    from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call, and from $3.15 to no more

    than $1.65 for a 15-minute interstate call.

    o Tiered rate structure accommodates the higher relative costs faced by jails (especially small

    jails) as opposed to state and federal prisons. The rate caps are as follows:

     11 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls, in state or federal prisons.

     14 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails with 1,000 or more inmates.

     16 cents /minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails with 350-999 inmates.

     22 cents /minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails of up to 349 inmates.

     Rates for collect calls are slightly higher in the first year and will be phased down to

    these caps after a two-year transition period.

    o Approximately 71% of inmates reside in state or federal prisons.

    o Approximately 85% of inmates reside in institutions with populations exceeding 1,000.

    o With the exception of the rate for small jails, these rates are substantially lower than the

    current 21 cents/minute interim cap on interstate rates.

    o The rate caps permit recovery for robust security measures, as reflected in costs that ICS

    providers filed with the Commission.

     Caps or bans burdensome and needless ancillary service charges, which can add nearly 40% to the

    cost of a single call

    o Limit and cap ancillary service charges to the following list of permitted charges:

     Automated payment by phone or website: $3.

     Payment through a live agent: $5.95.

     Paper bill fee: $2.

     Third-party financial transaction fees, such as fees charged by MoneyGram or

    Western Union, may be passed through with no mark-up.

    o All other ancillary service charges are prohibited.

    o Mandatory taxes and regulatory fees may be passed through with no mark-up.

     Discourages “site commission” payments by providers to institutions

    o Defines the term “site commission” broadly as payments in money or services from inmate

    calling service providers to correctional institutions or government agencies.

    o Excludes the cost of site commissions in establishing the rate caps and strongly discourages

    the use of site commissions.

    o Continues to monitor the effect of site commissions on rates but does not restrict ICS

    providers’ sharing or profits if such payments fit within the rate caps.

     Bans flat-rate calling

    o Disallows providers from imposing so-called “flat-rate calling,” that is, a flat rate for a call up

    to 15 minutes regardless of actual call duration.

    o Clarifies that this practice violates statutory mandates requiring that rates be just,

    reasonable, and fair, and penalizes callers who stay on the phone less than 15 minutes.

     Ensures access for people with disabilities

    o Requires providers to offer discounted rates for telephone relay service (TRS) calls for

    inmates with communications disabilities.

    o Reminds correctional institutions of their obligation to make TRS available to people with

    communications disabilities.

    o Encourages jails and prisons to allow commonly used forms of TRS and requires them to

    report service quality issues.

     Transition Period

    o Requires rate caps, site commission and ancillary service charge reforms to go into effect 90

    days from the effective date of the Order.

     Ongoing Review and Oversight

    o Commits to reevaluate impact of reforms and rates in two years to determine if adjustments

    need to be made.

    o Requires annual reporting and certification by ICS providers, to ensure compliance and

    enable monitoring of developments

     Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking:

    o Seeks further comment on promoting competition in inmate calling services without the

    need for additional regulation

    o Video visitation and other advanced inmate communications services

    o Recurring Mandatory Data Collection”

    • David Zenger

      “To simply connect votes to campaign contributions is too naive and simplistic.”

      Not only that, it is grossly cynical and really mean spirited not to trust in the integrity of our County elected officials.

    • Imjesayin

      Mr. Spitzer- Why do you need anyone else to act first before you scrutinize these ridiculous charges? Why can’t you simply do the right thing on your own without having to be told to do so by another agency? I know $1900 doesn’t mean much to you, but I’d bet you don’t want to be the bad guy with the sheriffs department before you make a run for DA. That’s it, huh?

      That inmate welfare fund stuff is a bunch of baloney, and just an excuse to keep the board in line. The sheriif’s department is just padding their salaries with that money. Everyone else has to tighten their belts around the county, they can too.

      And don’t give us this stuff about expecting the sheriff’s department to come to you with the plan. That’s the fox watching the hen house. Don’t drag this out another year and milk this contract any further. Do the right thing now.

      • David Zenger

        “I know $1900 doesn’t mean much to you,”

        Now why on Earth would you think that?

        • Imjesayin

          You think Mr. Spitzer is that hard up for money? More to the point, do you think $1,900 is going to sway the vote of a guy who is as well off as Spitzer? I highly doubt it. That’s why it doesn’t “mean MUCH”. Currying favor with the sheriff’s department before he runs for re-election or runs for DA means much more than $1,900! That’s the reason he hasn’t taken action.

          • David Zenger

            “do you think $1,900 is going to sway the vote of a guy who is as well off as Spitzer?”

            Yep.

    • Kathleen Tahilramani

      Blah, Blah, Blah…..Todd you think if you ramble and spew nonsense for more than 3 paragraphs that everyone will fall in line and agree with you. It’s simple a mere $2,000 will buy and pay for your vote. Face it you are for sale. Disgusting.

  • LFOldTimer

    This quid pro quo malarkey in the political circles has gotta stop. True civilized societies don’t operate this way. I feel like I’m being ruled by a bunch of money changers seated at the Dais. We need a cleansing of the temple.

    • David Zenger

      “I feel like I’m being ruled by a bunch of money changers seated at the Dais. We need a cleansing of the temple.”

      I’ve heard of a dude who eats at a fish taco place in Foothill Ranch that can maybe help you with your problem, Messiah-wise, I mean.

  • It doesn’t matter to them that even the kids in juvenile hall are charged the same exhorbitant fees and, because they are kids, they tend to call mommy and daddy daily, causing enormous strain on the poorest sector of OC society. Since the inception of the so-called “Inmate Welfare Fund” has anything (besides staff salaries) been purchased by the inmate welfare fund? Don’t put the blame solely on Todd and Shawn; the entire Gang of Five share responsibility.

    Business as usual.

  • David Zenger

    Cheap dates.

  • UnitedWeStand

    Well, if anybody wants to see how our country would be run if a Republican is elected President, they should have a snapshot in good ole Republican dominated Orange County. I recently read where Denmark is frequently ranked as the happiest country in the world in cross-national studies of
    happiness. “This has been attributed to the country’s highly regarded education and health care systems, and its low level of income inequality.” Orange County needs more balanced representation for its residents.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Orange County, as a whole, doesn’t vote. In the last ten years, the percentage of registered and eligible voters in the country was looked at, as opposed to how many voted. Generally, only twenty percent of the self involved citizens of the county actually get off their pampered duffs and vote. Believe me, that suits old Nelson and Spitzer right down to the ground. The last thing they need is an educated, informed and interested population. They would be dead in the water.

      • UnitedWeStand

        Yes you are correct, but because there currently is no balance, there are very, very few Democrat politicians in Orange County for who to vote. ..and we mustn’t forget the Citizens United ruling for which the Republican Judges are responsible. “An ABC–Washington Post poll conducted February 4–8, 2010, showed that 80% of those surveyed opposed (and 65% strongly opposed) the Citizens United ruling, which the poll described as saying “corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want to help political candidates win elections”….either by donating to them or if the Corporations are not supported, by donating to their opponent.

        • Jacki Livingston

          OC stacked the deck for Spitzer and his ilk, by supporting the dumbest and most ineffective leadership in my former union, and they paid them back by ignoring rampant abuse and embezzlement by upper management.

  • Jacki Livingston

    So, so typical. These two are as crooked and unethical as any politician in Washington. They are lying, backstabbing, embezzling slime. Nelson gets elected on an anti-pension platform, only to feed at the trough now. Spitzer uses his influence and his relationship with his wife and client to scam at the court, and takes money from crooked providers of Medi-Cal care, so he looks the other way while they rob patients and taxpayers blind. Why should this latest exposure change anything?

  • Jasenn Zaejian

    When will OC citizens begin to understand that this is who they continually vote into office, a greedy group of egocentric, right wing apologists who can easily be bought off so that they continue to promote and support sadistic policies on the impoverished, the incarcerated, the homeless, and the disturbed citizens, while mouthing flowery rhetoric to the contrary,.

  • Paul Lucas

    Why are my comments on moderation and why is my last comment deleted?

    • Paul, your comments received multiple flags from other users, so they automatically go into a bin where they need to be reviewed by a moderator before they are posted again. We don’t monitor this more than once a day. But I reposted your comment, this is just an FYI for the future. -Thy

      • Paul Lucas

        Oh I see. I suppose I’ve hit a nerve.

      • Paul Lucas

        When I review my profile on here I can see who up voted my comments but I cannot see who has down voted my comments or flagged them. What is the policy regarding that?

        • That’s just how Disqus works. We can’t see who flagged the comments either.

          • octaxpayer

            This sorta sucks.

          • Sorry! It was sort of the best we could do without hiring staff to do actual moderation. The idea is if users are aiming for a real conversation, the profane and crazy comments will be voted down and hidden and most other comments will remain. I do go through ones that get flagged and will approve them so long as they don’t appear to violate any of our policies. The biggest reason people get automatically filtered out by the system is because of profanity.

          • Paul Lucas

            In my case Im hitting raw nerves with bolts of truth. That tingling sensation means its working.

          • I’m practically retired. I’ll moderate for dog food.

          • Paul Lucas

            Thy no worries. You do great work. I thank you for your responses to my inquiries.

      • David Zenger

        Looks like Spitzer’s staff has found something to do.

        (This is just a test…)

      • octaxpayer

        SO basically if we have several logons we can control the input?

    • octaxpayer

      I notice a few of mine in the past were deleted. Then I notice the whole article gone. So much for a free voice. Although this site has been up now for what 6+ years. I’m not so sure it matters anymore what anyone says the BOS and other management seems to be above any accountability.