Supervisors Backed Off Criticism of Jail Phones After Contributions From Vendor

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Orange County Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer.

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.