Orange County supervisors Tuesday ordered options for canceling the county’s contract with a jail phones vendor that potentially jeopardized criminal cases by improperly recording phone calls between attorneys and their clients.

In a unanimous 5-0 vote, the Board of Supervisors directed the Sheriff’s Department to present them with choices by November that include keeping Global Tel-Link (GTL) as the vendor or switching to a different company.

“It was utter negligence,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who proposed switching the contract to a different vendor.

About 1,300 phone numbers were registered in the do-not-record list, but the restricted list dropped to “only 72,” Spitzer noted. “Who in the world isn’t checking the system to ensure its integrity?”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, speaking to Undersheriff Don Barnes, said if the system improperly records attorney-client calls in a criminal case, the charges can get thrown out. “And all your hard work, all the DA’s hard work goes down the drain because of total negligence,” Nelson said.

“This shouldn’t be difficult. And it frightens me that we got to this point,” Nelson added. “Some [sheriff’s] command staff person needed to oversee this contract.”

After an ongoing murder case revealed that protected calls were recorded, GTL disclosed it improperly recorded 1,079 private inmate calls between 2015 and 2018.

At least 58 calls were accessed by Sheriff’s Department employees, according to the company.

GTL has cited a “human error” during a software upgrade where the company failed to upload a database of 1,300 phone numbers that should have been automatically blocked from recording.

Attorney-client conversations are protected in the American legal system to ensure a person’s constitutional right to a fair trial and against self-incrimination. In California, it is a felony for anyone to record or eavesdrop without permission on inmates’ phone calls with attorneys, doctors, or clergy.

Improper law enforcement recording of inmates’ protected conversations have led to reduced and dismissed charges against criminals, including a reduced murder sentence in a Northern California case.

Sheriff officials, including Undersheriff Don Barnes, pushed back Tuesday against moving the contract to a different vendor, saying the recording problems have been fixed and GTL has taken steps to prevent it from happening again.

“The system, as designed, is currently working with G Tel,” Barnes told supervisors, referring to GTL.

“I, too share your concern with the breach…We were tremendously disappointed with G Tel,” Barnes added. “But that doesn’t change where we are today and where we need to move forward from. Our working with GTL since then has been positive.”

Instead of switching vendors, Barnes proposed the supervisors hire a company to monitor GTL and ensure they’re not improperly recording protected calls. And he suggested a competitive bidding process over the next 18 to 24 months to replace the current jail phones contract.

It’s unclear if GTL would be eligible to get the longer-term contract after the bidding process. Sheriff and county spokespeople didn’t have an immediate answer Tuesday.

Sheriff’s officials are making sure the improper recording doesn’t happen again, Barnes said. Of the improper recordings, he said: “Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until it hits [you] upside the head.”

Barnes, the second-in-command of the Sheriff’s Department, is running in the November election for the top sheriff job.

If supervisors do want to switch the phone vendor, sheriff officials said the service could shift four to six months from Tuesday’s meeting, which would be January 11 to March 11.

Barnes suggested there might not be any companies that would want to do the shorter-term work, and that the county’s costs for it could be high. But he didn’t express any interest in finding out what those costs would be or which companies would be interested in the work.

“I’m not sure if there would be a sole-source vendor that [want] to take that very short-term burden on, and if they did, what that cost might be to the county to have that happen. It could be significant for a very short-term period,” Barnes said.

While Spitzer and Nelson criticized the jail phone recordings, the other three supervisors were either silent or suggested it might not be feasible to switch vendors.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett noted that GTL has purchased one of the prior bidders for the OC jail phones contract, and agreed with Barnes’ suggestion to keep GTL as the contractor until the longer-time bidding process is done.

“We don’t want to make any rash decisions here. We want to make prudent decisions,” Bartlett said.

A representative of GTL told supervisors Tuesday the company fixed the recording problems as soon as they came up.

“Upon notification and understanding of what the situation was with the sheriff’s office, we took immediate action. We fixed it. We resolved it,” said Darren Wallace, GTL’s executive vice president of operations.

Spitzer had proposed canceling the GTL contract within 30 days for breaching its contract, but he has not gained any public support from the other supervisors to do so.

That meant his cancelation proposal goes nowhere for now, since it takes at least three of the five supervisors to take official actions at the county, such as canceling contracts or hiring new vendors.

Nelson and Spitzer raised serious concerns about GTL’s contract in 2014, saying the prices charged to inmates were excessive. Over the next few months, they received maxed-out contributions from the contractor, and when the contract came up for a vote, Nelson and Spitzer both dropped their concerns and voted for the contract.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Spitzer and Nelson also criticized the Sheriff’s Department for an incident last month in which a police dog attacked a county employee at work after its handler let the dog loose into a Public Works building as part of a training exercise without ensuring workers were notified.

A sheriff’s executive who oversees canine operations told supervisors the department has no written policy for how to notify building occupants before deputies release a police dog as part of a training exercise.

There is an informal practice of telling the building’s manager, said Capt. Jason Park, who lead’s the department’s Homeland Security Division, which includes the canines.

Sheriff officials were going to “send a dog that could maul the living you-no-what out of somebody, and it doesn’t dawn on us to put out an alert?” Nelson said.

“I’m so sad for this person,” Nelson said of the employee who was attacked by the dog. “But I’m just so ashamed that we don’t have the good sense to do just basic things – like we went over this [jail] phone [do-not-record] list earlier.”

“No one’s ever accountable. Your agency needs to hold people accountable…This is ridiculous.”

The training executive disagreed.

“It’s my division. And I’m held accountable,” Park said. “I certainly feel like the sheriff and the undersheriff [are] holding me accountable. And my staff [are] being held accountable.”

He didn’t say how people are being held accountable.

“I just feel like I’m in this twilight zone over and over that it’s the head-scratcher of ‘I’ll be darned. We’re gonna learn next time,’ ” Nelson said of the Sheriff’s Department.

“We deserve better.”

Contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.

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