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O.C. supervisors order investigation into recorded attorney-client calls in county jail

O.C. supervisors order investigation into recorded attorney-client calls in county jail
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, pictured in 2014, says she welcomes the Office of Independent Review investigation of jail contractor Global Tel Link Corp. (File Photo)

The Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously ordered an investigation Tuesday into recent revelations that more than 1,000 privileged phone calls between county jail inmates and their attorneys were improperly recorded over a three-year period.

The decision directs the county’s Office of Independent Review to delve into the issue and report back within 90 days.

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Board Chairman Andrew Do said Tuesday that the goal is to outline “where we are, what happened … and, more importantly, what exposure we have as a county.”

The board’s vote came a week after the county sent a letter informing Global Tel Link Corp. — a contractor that oversees the jail phone system — that the county and Sheriff’s Department “are considering legal options” regarding the breach that resulted in 1,079 privileged calls being recorded in violation of state law.

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During a court hearing last week, GTL employees said the issue was a case of “human error,” as some 1,300 phone numbers designated as “do not record” were not properly transferred as part of a system update in January 2015.

Company officials also revealed that the same issue had happened twice before, in Pinellas and Charlotte counties in Florida.

In Orange County’s case, the company corrected what it initially called a “technical error” in July and no longer is recording attorney-client phone calls, according to GTL and Sheriff’s Department officials.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running for Orange County district attorney this year, called for the immediate termination of GTL’s contract and said he plans to put that discussion on the agenda for a future board meeting.

“Depending on who listened to the calls, dozens of felonies may have been committed by jail personnel, compromising criminal cases,” Spitzer said in a statement Tuesday. “Our judicial system in this county is in crisis. We desperately need an outside, impartial investigation.”

According to Spitzer’s office, GTL’s contract comes up for renewal in November and is worth an estimated $4.6 million annually.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said she doesn’t “think we’re in a position to terminate,” as “there aren’t a lot of vendors out there that do this kind of work and provide these services.”

In an Aug. 21 letter to GTL, the county counsel’s office wrote that county officials were considering legal options.

“We believe GTL has breached the contract by failing to retain in the system the 1,300-plus phone numbers that existed prior to the upgrade [in] 2015,” the letter stated. “The fallout from this breach continues to grow, seemingly on a daily basis, and has captured significant media attention as well as the attention of the criminal defense bar in Orange County.”

“Moving forward,” the letter continued, “we request assurances from GTL that the system is presently working as required under the contract and that there will not be future breaches of a similar ilk … potentially impacting the rights of inmates.”

Also last week, an Orange County Superior Court judge appointed a special master to review the calls.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, county Sheriff Sandra Hutchens told supervisors that “we have made it very clear to G-Tel, with the assistance of county counsel, that there’s a real issue here” and said she welcomes the Office of Independent Review investigation.

“I think that’s the only way that everybody will feel comfortable that this was looked at independently and thoroughly,” she said.

Among the communications recorded by law enforcement was at least one jailhouse phone call in 2016 between Joshua Waring, son of former “Real Housewives of Orange County” cast member Lauri Peterson, and his then-defense attorney.

Waring, 29, is facing three counts of attempted murder and other felony and misdemeanor charges in connection with a shooting at a former Costa Mesa sober-living home in June 2016. He could face multiple life sentences if convicted.

His current defense attorney, Joel Garson, has been digging into allegations that law enforcement monitored and shared Waring’s phone calls in Orange County Jail while he was representing himself in his criminal case. Garson is trying to have the case dismissed on grounds of outrageous governmental conduct.

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