Orange County supervisors Tuesday ordered options for canceling the county’s contract with a jail phones vendor that potentially jeopardized criminal cases by improperly recording phone calls between attorneys and their clients.
In a unanimous 5-0 vote, the Board of Supervisors directed the Sheriff’s Department to present them with choices by November that include keeping Global Tel-Link as the vendor or switching to a different company.
Tuesday’s vote came two weeks after supervisors unanimously ordered the county’s Office of Independent Review to investigate the issue and report back within 90 days.
“It was utter negligence,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who proposed switching the contract to a different vendor.
About 1,300 phone numbers were registered in the do-not-record list, but the restricted list dropped to “only 72,” Spitzer noted. “Who in the world isn’t checking the system to ensure its integrity?”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, speaking to Undersheriff Don Barnes, said if the system improperly records attorney-client calls in a criminal case, the charges can get thrown out.
“And all your hard work, all the D.A.’s hard work goes down the drain because of total negligence,” Nelson said.
“This shouldn’t be difficult. And it frightens me that we got to this point,” Nelson added. “Some [sheriff’s] command staff person needed to oversee this contract.”
After an ongoing murder case revealed that protected calls were recorded, GTL disclosed it improperly recorded 1,079 private inmate calls between 2015 and 2018.
At least 58 calls were accessed by Sheriff’s Department employees, according to the company.
GTL has cited a “human error” during a software upgrade where the company failed to upload a database of 1,300 phone numbers that should have been automatically blocked from recording.
During a court hearing last month, company officials disclosed that the same issue had happened twice before, in Pinellas and Charlotte counties in Florida.
Among the communications recorded by law enforcement was at least one jailhouse phone call in 2016 between Joshua Waring — the son of former “Real Housewives of Orange County” cast member Lauri Peterson — and his defense attorney at the time.
His current defense attorney, Joel Garson, has been looking 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 and is trying to have the case dismissed on grounds of outrageous governmental conduct.
Sheriff officials, including Barnes, pushed back Tuesday against moving the contract to a different vendor, saying the recording problems have been fixed and GTL has taken steps to prevent it from happening again.
“The system, as designed, is currently working with G Tel,” Barnes told supervisors.
Barnes, the second-in-command of the Sheriff’s Department, is running in the November election for the top sheriff job.
“I, too share your concern with the breach … We were tremendously disappointed with G Tel,” Barnes added. “But that doesn’t change where we are today and where we need to move forward from. Our working with GTL since then has been positive.”
Instead of switching vendors, Barnes proposed the supervisors hire a company to monitor GTL and ensure they’re not improperly recording protected calls. And he suggested a competitive bidding process over the next 18 to 24 months to replace the current jail phones contract.
If supervisors do want to switch the phone vendor, sheriff officials said the service could shift four to six months from Tuesday’s meeting.
Barnes suggested there might not be any companies that would want to do the shorter-term work, and that the county’s costs for it could be high.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett noted that GTL has purchased one of the prior bidders for the OC jail phones contract and agreed with Barnes’ suggestion to keep GTL as the contractor until the longer-time bidding process is done.
“We don’t want to make any rash decisions here. We want to make prudent decisions,” Bartlett said.
A representative of GTL told supervisors the company fixed the recording problems as soon as they came up.
“Upon notification and understanding of what the situation was with the sheriff’s office, we took immediate action. We fixed it. We resolved it,” said Darren Wallace, GTL’s executive vice president of operations.
Spitzer had proposed canceling the GTL contract within 30 days for breaching its contract, but he has not gained any public support from the other supervisors to do so.
Nelson and Spitzer raised serious concerns about GTL’s contract in 2014, saying the prices charged to inmates were excessive. Over the next few months, they received maxed-out contributions from the contractor, and when the contract came up for a vote, Nelson and Spitzer both dropped their concerns and voted for the contract.