The Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Global Tel Link (GTL), the county’s jail phone contractor, knew about the unconstitutional recording of jail phone calls between inmates and attorneys and tried to cover up their misconduct, according to new allegations in a 48-page legal motion filed by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders.
GTL publicly acknowledged the improper recording of 1,079 calls between inmates and attorneys between January 2015 and July 2018, which Sheriff’s officials and the company say was the result of a “human error” by the company. At least 13 Sheriff’s employees accessed 58 of those calls.
The Sheriff said the problem was discovered in late June and fixed.
Sanders argues the attorney-client call recordings likely number in the hundreds of thousands, based on just the number of calls the Public Defender’s office might receive in one day.
He says in his motion both the Sheriff’s Department and GTL knowingly accessed the call recordings and came up with the software glitch as part of a broader cover-up.
Sanders points to a GTL employee, Larry Coleman, who worked as a liaison to the Sheriff’s Department and directly with deputies in the Special Handling unit, the now defunct jail unit that handled informants. Coleman, who according to Sanders worked closely with deputies, accessed one of the 1,079 recorded calls in February 2015, and hours later, sworn deputies began listening to calls for the first time as well, Sanders wrote.
Coleman could not be reached for comment but GTL spokesman James J. Lee confirmed that Coleman worked for GTL from the beginning of the company’s latest contract with Orange County. Lee wouldn’t comment on whether Coleman currently works for GTL.
Defense attorneys are also discussing calls that were allegedly recorded in addition to the 1,079 disclosed by GTL, including “hundreds” of calls from inmates to the Public Defender’s main line that were improperly recorded during a two-week period in July 2016, according to defense attorney Joel Garson.
Garson is attempting to dismiss attempted murder charges against his client Joshua Waring after he discovered calls between Waring and his former alternate public defender were recorded, as well as calls Waring made while he was representing himself, despite a court order granting him unmonitored calls.
Garson said in a closed-door meeting with GTL representatives at a Sept. 25 court proceeding, GTL disclosed that while the main Public Defender’s number was on the “do not record” list for the period between 2015 and 2018, effectively blocking the recording of calls, the number disappeared from the list for two weeks in July 2016, which the company attributed to an unknown software problem.
“Hundreds” of calls were recorded during that two-week period, Garson said, about ten of which were accessed by jail deputies.
Garson still is processing data from GTL that he received in the Waring case, which requires him to weed out irrelevant entries, such as recordings where the caller hung up and no conversation was actually recorded. Coleman was one of the people who accessed Waring’s calls during the time that he was representing himself in court, Garson said.
“I don’t know how many lawyers in Orange County are going to be in the same boat – there’s going to be thousands of recorded attorney-client calls, hundreds of which have been accessed over the years,” Garson said. “Even if it was unintentional…once [the Sheriff’s Department] realized they were attorney phone calls they should have notified GTL or whoever monitors the system.”
Lee denied any wrongdoing by GTL and said the company has fully cooperated to turn over relevant data in its possession to the courts.
He declined to comment on Garson’s allegation that GTL has discovered “hundreds” of additional calls recordings, citing a protective order on the recordings. He also would not comment on whether a software glitch caused those calls to be recorded during those two weeks in July 2016.
Garson and Lee both said more information about their closed-door conversation will be available in a court document that will filed at an Oct. 16 hearing in Waring’s case.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the “original recording error was a human error on the part of a third-party contractor, GTL, who has taken responsibility for the error.”
“The ‘do not record’ list issue has been rectified and numbers on the list are not being recorded,” Braun said, noting that calls made to any number not on that list would have included the prompt, “This call is from a correctional facility and is subject to monitoring or recording.”
A GTL executive testified in August that the same problem occurred in two Florida counties but the company did not notify any of their other customers, which number in the thousands across the United States.
A Software Glitch or Intentional Breach?
Sanders’ motion focuses on discrepancies in the original 1,079 recorded calls disclosed by GTL.
Calls going in and out of Orange County jails are automatically recorded, unless a number is added to one of two blacklists that prevent recording, known as the “private” and “do not record” lists. The right to confidential conversations with an attorney is a basic constitutional right, and under California law, eavesdropping on or recording those conversations is a felony.
GTL says 1,079 calls were recorded after a software upgrade in 2015 where the company forgot to upload the “do not record” list, which contained 1,309 phone numbers. The “private” list of 72 phone numbers, however, had been uploaded properly. Once calls are recorded, they enter a central database where jail personnel with special access can listen to, download and share recordings. Jail personnel can also live monitor phone calls.
Of the 1,079 recorded calls, at least 58 of those calls were played, downloaded or burned to a disc by jail personnel. Some of those calls were turned over by the department to other law enforcement agencies.
Sanders and others have questioned how only 1,079 calls were recorded when the Public Defender’s office alone receives hundreds of calls a day. Even if the main office line was blocked, inmates can also call their lawyers directly, or at satellite offices located at county courthouses.
Sanders’ motion doesn’t take into account the new information from Garson about the newly disclosed recordings to the Public Defender’s main office line.
Among the 1,079 recorded calls already identified by the company, 7 of those were made in July 2016 to the Public Defender’s main office line.
“We don’t get a number as low as 7 calls in a single hour at the main office,” Sanders said.
In 2015, 702 calls were made to the numbers on the “do not record” list; 211 calls were made in 2016 and 131 in 2017, Sanders wrote. The largest volume of calls occurred in February 2015, 312 calls, the month the Sheriff’s Department began accessing the recordings.
There are also periods, weeks at a time, where no calls are made to the 1,309 phone numbers on the “do not record” list, Sanders says.
“The only reasonable explanation for these gaps is that the OCSD and/or GTL removed thousands of calls from the list, or repeatedly started and stopped recording calls to attorneys during this 40-month period,” Sanders wrote.
Sanders notes that twelve calls that appear in a log of calls accessed by jail personnel don’t appear on the list of recorded phone calls.
“Quite clearly, deputies and investigators could not have downloaded, played, copied and/or listened to calls that had never been recorded,” Sanders wrote.
If you exclude any calls to the Public Defender’s main line, the data from GTL suggests less than a call a day from jail inmates to any of the 1,309 numbers on the “do not record” list, Sanders argues.
In a response to a subpoena, GTL has since identified another 549 calls between Garson and other clients that were recorded in 2015 and 2016, according to an Oct. 3 letter from County Counsel Leon Page to GTL.
Garson didn’t add his phone numbers to the blacklist until earlier this year, when he learned about the breach in Waring’s calls, so he doesn’t blame the Sheriff or GTL for the recording of those calls, he said.
At least 11 of those calls were accessed by deputies, Garson said, questioning why jail personnel didn’t turn over that information when they realized they were listening to attorney-client calls.
In his letter to GTL, Page expressed frustration about the “piecemeal and incomplete” information provided by the company about the phone calls.
Page questioned why those 549 calls to Garson didn’t show up in July, when they asked the company to search for recordings of calls made to the new blacklist they updated after the breach was discovered, which by that time included Garson’s phone numbers.
Connections to the Jailhouse Informant Scandal
Sanders’ motion was filed in a residential burglary case where his client, Justin Weisz, is accused of breaking into a home and stealing a car. He’s seeking records about the recordings and the opportunity to question people involved. The list of 1,079 recordings doesn’t include any calls from Weisz.
Sanders is known for discovering the illegal use of jail informants by Orange County law enforcement, a pattern of misconduct referred to locally as the jailhouse snitch scandal, and cites a number of documents he received in snitch scandal cases.
Those records, which include jail logs kept by deputies in the Special Handling unit, show numerous entries by deputies where they reference monitoring phone calls and relaying information from the recordings to deputies.
The 1,057-page Special Handling log, which was instrumental in the informant scandal for detailing notes about how deputies used informants, contained constant references to monitoring phone calls, Sanders wrote.
Deputies kept notes on their daily tasks, including reviewing phone calls, in a document known as the work station log. That log was terminated by the department three weeks after deputies began accessing calls, according to Sanders.
Another log focused entirely on monitoring phone recordings. A few pages of those logs were disclosed in an informant scandal case, and show specific shifts where deputies detailed calls they monitored for “intel gathering” and calls they downloaded for investigators.
It’s no coincidence, Sanders says, that jail deputies began listening to phone calls in 2015, when the department was under intense scrutiny for its use of informants and around the time a judge kicked local prosecutors off a high-profile mass murder case for misconduct.
He speculates in the motion that deputies, angered by the public criticism but still “committed as ever to obtaining defendant statements and strategies regardless of the legality,” the department began listening to the confidential calls.
Who Accessed the Private Calls?
The jail phone recordings themselves and information about what criminal cases have been impacted are in the hands of a special master appointed by Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett, and is protected by a broad court order from being released publicly.
Any further investigation of the issue is in the hands of the special master, said Braun, the Sheriff’s spokeswoman.
Sanders said other attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office did not share jail recording records with him.
His motion discloses the names of jail personnel who accessed recorded calls, including several people who were members of the Special Handling unit, which was dissolved after the informant scandal, and members of its successor, the Custodial Intelligence Unit.
For example, Special Operations Investigator William Beeman, who maintained recording devices in jail cells and worked closely with Special Handling deputies, accessed 11 of the improper phone recordings.
Beeman is frequently referred to in the Special Handling log in reference to phone recordings, Sanders wrote.
The Sheriff’s Department denied a Voice of OC public records request for the names of Sheriff’s personnel who accessed the calls, citing court protective orders.
In response to a California Public Records Act request, the Sheriff’s Department turned over a list of 90 Sheriff’s employees who “had access but their access was removed on August 22, 2018,” the day before a court hearing where GTL executives discussed the accidental recordings.
That list included 22 people whose names were redacted because they work undercover, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Access is now restricted to 16 people, four personnel in the Inmate Services’ Division, eight in the Custody Intelligence Unit, and four in the Special Operations Unit whose names have been withheld because they work undercover.
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.