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Lawyer accuses O.C. Sheriff's Department of conspiracy in illegally recorded attorney-inmate phone calls

Lawyer accuses O.C. Sheriff's Department of conspiracy in illegally recorded attorney-inmate phone calls
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders filed a motion in court alleging law enforcement downplayed the number of recorded attorney-client jailhouse phone calls. In this 2014 file photo, Sanders questions a jailhouse informant during a hearing for Scott Dekraai. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

An Orange County public defender this week lodged allegations in court documents that the Sheriff’s Department and a contractor that oversees the jail phone system conspired to record and listen in on over 1,000 phone calls between inmates and their attorneys.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders’ claims are detailed in a 48-page motion filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court on behalf of Justin Steven Weisz, who is facing burglary and other charges in connection with a car theft in February. The motion seeks discovery in the case related to any of Weisz’s jail phone calls to his attorney that were recorded or accessed by law enforcement.

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No phone calls from Weisz are listed in a document detailing the recorded calls provided by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, a list that Sanders says is incomplete.

Through the discovery request, Sanders is trying to show that the Sheriff’s Department and its contractor, Global Tel Link, doctored or failed to provide a complete list of phone calls between jail inmates and their attorneys that were recorded from 2015 through early this year.

“During the past several months, the two entities put into action a plan to present blatantly fraudulent documents related to the recording and accessing of calls in order to mislead defendants, courts, the Board of Supervisors, and the public about the actual scope of improper recording and accessing of calls,” Sanders wrote.

A document provided by the Sheriff’s Department lists 1,079 phone calls that were recorded in the time period, including a handful of calls defendants made to the Orange County public defender’s office, in violation of state law. During a 40-month period listed in the documents, inmates called the main line for the public defender’s office seven times — with each of the calls occurring in July 2017 — and dialed other numbers for the public defender’s branch offices nine times, according to Sanders.

However, he said based on the sheer volume of calls that his office receives — at least 100 daily — the complete list of recorded calls should be closer to several hundred thousand.

“The only reasonable explanation for these gaps is that the [Orange County Sheriff’s Department] and/or [Global Tel Link] removed thousands of calls from the list, or repeatedly started and stopped recording calls to attorneys during this 40-month period,” Sanders wrote, adding that this would point to deputies’ knowledge of the recordings.

Global Tel Link corrected the error in July and no longer is recording attorney-client phone calls, company and sheriff’s officials have said. The Sheriff’s Department has denied any wrongdoing, although the Orange County Board of Supervisors in late August ordered an investigation into the problem. The supervisors’ directed the county’s Office of Independent Review to delve into the issue and report back within 90 days.

“The original recording error was a human error on the part of a third-party contractor [Global Tel Link] who has taken responsibility for the error,” Orange County sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said Wednesday. “Any number that was not included on the list would have been subject to the same recording policy as the general public. Both callers, the inmate and the attorney, would have heard a prompt on every call as follows: ‘This call is from a correctional facility and is subject to monitoring or recording.’”

The attorney-client recordings came to light in August when a county employee testified about it during a hearing in Joshua Waring’s attempted murder case. Waring is the son of former “Real Housewives of Orange County” cast member Lauri Peterson.

Waring’s defense attorney, Joel Garson, made the discovery after 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.

Orange County sheriff’s officials knew about the issue as early as July 27, when an employee with Global Tel Link wrote in a letter to Sheriff Sandra Hutchens that an update in the company’s system in January 2015 caused “a technical error” that led to the phone calls being recorded.

“After conducting research, we have determined that the Sheriff’s Department staff, and in certain circumstances [Global Tel Link] for investigative or technical purposes, accessed 58 of those 1,079 recorded calls a total of 87 times,” Darren Wallace, executive vice president of operations for Global Tel Link, wrote in the letter.

Sanders grabbed headlines for his role defending Scott Dekraai, a former tugboat captain who was sentenced to life in prison in 2017, six years after he carried out the worst mass shooting in Orange County’s history. Through discovery in the case, Sanders, a 20-year veteran of the public defender’s office, discovered that officials used a sophisticated jailhouse informant network to coax confessions out of people held in the county's jail system.

The district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department for years have denied running a coordinated informant operation.

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Sanders alleges that sheriff’s officials stopped maintaining a daily log that deputies in the Special Handling unit — the same unit at the center of the jailhouse informant scandal — used to track their investigative activity in order to aid in covering up the recordings. This happened, Sanders said, three weeks after they began accessing attorney phone calls and days after Judge Thomas Goethals criticized deputies in the unit “for hiding and concealing records” related to the Dekraai case.

Sanders argues in the motion that “the evidence establishes that instead of stopping the wrongdoing, [Global Tel Link] and the [Orange County Sheriff’s Department] conspired to allow the improper recordings to continue, while facilitating investigative access to said recordings to a period lasting at least 28 months.”

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