A couple of years ago, Orange County supervisors expressed shock and demanded accountability after the sheriff’s jail phones vendor put criminal cases at risk by improperly recording thousands of attorney-client calls.
“Dozens of felonies may have been committed by jail personnel, compromising criminal cases,” then-Supervisor Todd Spitzer said in August 2018 when the scandal broke.
“Our judicial system in this county is in crisis,” Spitzer added. He demanded the county terminate its contract with the company, GTL, which had recorded attorney-client calls despite their numbers being on a do-not-record list.
While jail officials can legally record many types of inmate calls, it’s a felony in California for anyone to record or eavesdrop without permission on inmates’ phone calls with attorneys. That’s because of constitutional protections to ensure a person’s constitutional right to a fair trial and against self-incrimination.
The jail phones scandal has only deepened in recent months, with revelations this past November that GTL improperly recorded yet more calls from April to December 2019 between OC inmates and defense attorneys – even after the county hired a company to make sure such calls aren’t recorded.
When GTL’s came up for another extension last month, county supervisors expressed no concern about the improper recording of attorney-client calls, and extended the contract for another six months.
Taxpayers have been spending $275,000 a year for another company to make sure GTL follows the law and doesn’t record attorney-client calls again.
Over $800,000 in taxpayer funds have been approved since April 2019 for the oversight, which didn’t prevent GTL from recording more attorney-client calls later that year – a revelation that became public this past fall.
Last week, the supervisors renewed that $275,000-per-year oversight contract without raising any questions or comments.
Voice of OC followed up with phone messages to all five county supervisors.
“As I understand it, [the oversight contractor] caught the problem so it is doing its job,” Supervisor Don Wagner told Voice of OC. He added that the board shortened GTL’s latest extension to six more months rather than the extra year requested by the sheriff.
Yet the plan was for the oversight contractor to make sure GTL didn’t improperly record such calls in the first place, which did happen for months after Praeses was brought in.
“I understand we are paying $275,000 to supervise [GTL] so they don’t do the same thing again,” Wagner said in April 2019 when the oversight contract was being approved.
The idea is “to watch over [GTL] and make sure this [recording of attorney-client calls] doesn’t happen again.”
Sheriff Don Barnes has been pushing back the bidding process that will decide if another vendor gets the work, citing the Covid-19 pandemic.
In November 2018, faced with the recording scandal, now-Sheriff Don Barnes said GTL’s contract was scheduled to be put out to bid in the following months.
Since then, the process to pick a potential replacement has been pushed back and remains ongoing.
The newest county supervisor says she’ll make the jail phone recording issue a top priority for her new chief of staff to look into.
“This will become a priority for our office,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley, whose first board meeting was last week, told Voice of OC.
Foley said her new chief of staff, who starts Monday, will dive into the contract and know which questions to ask.
“We’ll make sure to shine some light on the matters people are concerned about,” Foley said.
In a phone interview, Supervisor Doug Chaffee called for a stop to the attorney-client call recording, but said he doesn’t know how.
“It’s got to stop. They can’t allow that to happen. I don’t know how to make it not happen,” Chaffee said, noting the board shortened the latest extension to six months.
“This outfit claimed it had corrected the problem. But apparently they didn’t. And here we go again,” he added.
“I think the sheriff found it difficult to find a replacement.”
The other two county supervisors, Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett, didn’t return calls for comment.
The supervisors’ largest campaign supporter is the deputy sheriffs’ union, which also is the largest campaign spender for Sheriff Barnes.
The supervisors’ handling of GTL has prompted one supervisor to publicly accuse another of corruption – something rarely seen among the county’s top elected officials.
In late October 2018, Supervisor Andrew Do publicly accused Spitzer of extorting the jail phone company for campaign money in his ultimately successful campaign for district attorney.
Do mentioned it to illustrate a point that the supervisors have a host of disparaging information about each other they could go public with but don’t.
“A month ago, when you first – Supervisor Spitzer, when you first talked about the GTL [jail] phone contract, and you brought in a bunch of TV people, a major news network, to make sure to see you very forcefully saying, ‘We’re gonna terminate GTL’s contract today! Immediately! I demand it!’ ” Do said at a supervisors’ meeting in late October 2018.
“And then, within days, the lobbyists representing GTL donated, what? $40,000, $50,000 to a PAC that then sent out mailers on your behalf – in this [election] cycle,” Do added.
“Now, I knew that information. I could have called out the maybe alleged hypocrisy, if not extortionary tactics, performed on the dais right here. But I didn’t,” Do said.
“I just wanted to make sure that people don’t think that just because we don’t say things up here, that we don’t have information that we can use every day, in every meeting, to smear each other. Okay?”
Campaign records show GTL’s lobbying firm contributed $5,000 to a political action committee backing Spitzer’s DA run called “Crime Survivors PAC Supporting Spitzer for District Attorney 2018.”
The contributions came on Sept. 25, 2018 a few weeks after Spitzer called for GTL’s contract to be terminated.
Spitzer didn’t respond to Do during the meeting, and declined to comment about it in person after the public session of the meeting where Do alleged he was extorting the jail phones vendor
But in response to follow-up messages from Voice of OC, Spitzer said in a text message that he had “nothing to do with the PAC. Political action committees are completely independent entities.”
“I have been adamant from day one that Global Tel Link violated the terms of its contract and should be terminated immediately. Andrew [Do] has [been] its biggest defender for its [incompetence] and malfeasance,” Spitzer wrote.
“His argument is completely illogical[,] normally you argue that people support you when they give you money. In this case I have no idea who’s giving what and I’m completely against [GTL’s] contract and nothing is going to change.”
Spitzer and another supervisor previously backed off a threat to scale back the jails phone contractor’s profits, after he got a maxed-out contribution from the firm.
When the jail phones contract came up for renewal in 2014, Spitzer and then-Supervisor Shawn Nelson raised serious concerns that GTL was charging excessive prices to inmates.
The cost for each phone call was $4 plus other fees, even if the call is just one or two minutes long.
“Those fees are astronomical,” said Nelson, who along with Spitzer wasn’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 at the June 2014 meeting.
“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.
Over the next few months, they received maxed-out contributions from the contractor.
And when the contract came up for a vote that November, Nelson and Spitzer both dropped their concerns and voted for it. The contract called for the exact same prices they had previously raised concerns about.
Spitzer is now the elected district attorney in charge of most criminal prosecutions in Orange County and Nelson is his second-in-command.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.