Orange County supervisor wants to end contract with phone carrier that improperly recorded attorney-client jail calls
An Orange County Supervisor on Tuesday demanded that the county end its contract with a jailhouse phone carrier that improperly recorded attorney-client calls over a three-year period, allowing law enforcement to eavesdrop on confidential conversations.
The request comes a week after the county sent a letter to phone carrier GTL that the county is “considering legal options” related to the contract.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, speaking during a board meeting, expressed frustration that GTL didn’t immediately notify the board that it had inadvertently recorded 1,079 calls from jail inmates to their attorneys. Instead, GTL opted in mid-June to tell only the sheriff. Spitzer also criticized the company for not revealing to the board in recent contract talks that it had made the same type of recording error twice before in Florida.
“I’m done with them,” Spitzer said, noting that he first learned of GTL’s recording problem from news accounts.
Spitzer said he’ll ask the board to begin the process of finding a new jail phone vendor at its September meeting. GTL has blamed the problem on a mistake during a 2015 system upgrade.
Spitzer’s call to cut ties with GTL came as the board voted unanimously to direct the county’s civilian law-enforcement watchdog, the Office of Independent Review, to conduct a 90-day probe into recorded phone calls.
News of the jailhouse recordings emerged this month when an attorney representing a man accused of attempted murder asked the judge to drop the charges because his client had been improperly recorded while making a phone call from Orange County jail. Documents later obtained by the Southern California News Group showed that Orange County sheriff’s personnel and others accessed 58 attorney-client conversations a total of 87 times over the past three years. Since then, a Superior Court judge has appointed a special master to take charge of the recordings.
GTL’s contract with the county is up for its a one-year extension in November. But Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said Tuesday that the board wouldn’t be able to end the contract that quickly. She said there aren’t many companies that offer jailhouse phone services and that it would take time if the county decided to consider other vendors. A sheriff’s spokeswoman noted that the department is required by law to offer phone services.
“They’ve fixed the technical glitch,” Bartlett said of GTL. “And I don’t think we have other options.”
In an Aug. 21 letter to GTL, Orange County Counsel Leon Page warned the company that its error had put it in breach of contract with the county, and asked the company to assure that “there will not be future breaches of a similar ilk… potentially impacting the rights of inmates.” However, Page did not indicate the GTL contract might be cut short.
Supervisor Andrew Do and sheriff’s officials said on Tuesday that the public shouldn’t assume that sheriff’s personnel listened to the improper recordings, even if they had access to them. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun speculated that investigators could have unintentionally heard portions of the recordings and stopped listening when they realized the calls were off-limits. And she said that in other cases, the recording might have been downloaded for other agencies.
However, records show that sheriff’s personnel played the recordings dozens of times. In at least one case – that of Joshua Waring, who stands accused of attempted murder – the recordings generated a 40-page report by the Costa Mesa Police Department. In other instances, sheriff’s officials accessed multiple attorney-client phone calls from the same phone numbers over multiple dates.
Staff writer Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.