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A lack of oversight allowed the illegal recording of more than 30,000 phone calls between inmates and their attorneys inside county jails, according to the Orange County Grand Jury.

But the Grand Jury report said it  didn’t find malicious intent in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the illegal recordings, and the report said the recorded attorney-client calls,which are heavily protected under the U.S. legal system, didn’t jeopardize the Constitutional rights of any inmates to a fair trial.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, one of the county’s most outspoken critics of the way the County handled the phone recordings, called the Grand Jury report “patently irresponsible.”

“The Grand Jury clearly brought in (Sheriff’s Department) management, who spoke in their most convincing voices and explained it was all a big accident,” Sanders said in a phone interview. “And the Grand Jury ate it up.”

Grand Jury Foreperson Brigit Sale declined to comment beyond what’s in the report, saying in an email that it “contains all the information the Grand Jury intends to present on this topic.”

Click here to read the OC Grand Jury report.

The report, released Friday, May 31, claimed that during the course of the investigation, “the Grand Jury found that all involved parties handled this situation professionally, with transparency and with good intentions. There was no evidence that recorded phone calls were systematically provided to the (Orange County District Attorney’s Office).”

The report goes on to say “This is a complicated issue and, to the (Sheriff’s) and the County’s credit, they are tackling it head-on and may easily become leaders in the State and the United States in finding the most desirable solution for providing legally privileged communications to inmates.”

Under California law, it’s a felony for anyone to record or eavesdrop without permission on inmates’ phone calls with attorneys, doctors, or clergy.

“I’m heartened the report reinforced there was no malicious wrongdoing or evidence that any defendant’s right to a fair trial were adversely affected by (Global Tel Link, the county jail phone contractor)’s error,” said Sheriff Don Barnes in an emailed statement. “We continue to take steps necessary to ensure that the inmate phone system both helps us manage jail security and protects constitutional rights.

Superior Court evidence and testimony last year revealed that Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney officials knew since at least 2015 about privileged attorney-inmate phone calls being recorded in the county jails.

This came after county officials maintained they had only learned about the recording problems in July 2018, and after November court proceedings revealed that over 30,000 inmate calls to their attorneys were recorded.

The testimony raised questions about why county officials apparently did not examine the issue further to potentially stop the recordings of protected calls that started in January 2015, when a computer upgrade by GTL caused recordings of attorney-client calls despite their designation on a “do notrecord” list.

The testimony also at the time called into question what the Sheriff’s Department officials did or didn’t tell county supervisors when seeking a renewal of the jail phones contract in October 2017.

In November last year, the county Board of Supervisors moved to extend GTL’s contract for another year, despite outrage and calls to change jail phone vendors by some supervisors at the time, including then-supervisor and current District Attorney Todd Spitzer.

In the meantime, Barnes said in his statement the Sheriff’s Department is developing a request for proposals by other potential contractors “for an inmate telephone system that will have enhanced programming and security.”

The jail phone recordings scandal gained the spotlight in August last year, after defense attorney Joel Garson discovered calls between his client, Josh Waring, and his prior attorney were recorded, as well as calls Waring made while he was representing himself despite a court order granting him unmonitored calls.

Waring, whose mother is former Real Housewives of Orange County star Lauri Peterson, currently awaits trial for attempted murder in connection with a 2016 shooting in Costa Mesa.

Sanders said the grand jury findings “ignore completely the fact that (the) Sheriff’s Department concealed that its personnel were listening to attorney client calls for more than three years — with the Grand Jury embarrassingly suggesting that the agency could now become national leaders in how to respond to these issues.”

Barnes in his statement said “OCSD has taken multiple steps to ensure attorney-client privileged phone calls will not be recorded or listened to.”

“We have enhanced oversight within the Custody Intelligence Unit and created a formalized and publicized process for attorneys and public defenders to submit their phone numbers for inclusion on the ‘do not record’ list,” he added.

Sanders said it’s “very much unclear” how many of his office’s clients’ are connected to the phone recording scandal.

“Myself and others believe that likely hundreds of thousands of calls to our office were recorded,” he said.

Sanders is also known for discovering the illegal use of jail informants by Orange County law enforcement, a pattern referred to locally as the jailhouse snitch scandal.

The Grand Jury in July, 2017 called a Superior Court evidence hearing on the scandal a “witch hunt,” blaming any wrongdoing on “a few rogue deputies who got carried away with efforts to be crime-fighters,” and unnamed District Attorney officials who didn’t didn’t pay attention to disclosure issues.

Sanders also criticized that Grand Jury report, saying jurors at the time didn’t dive deep enough into the facts.

The grand jury findings at the time bore a stark contrast from an earlier unanimous decision by a California appeals court, which found “systemic problems” with informants and evidence disclosure at the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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