Nearly 34K Calif. inmates' calls to attorneys recorded, not the 1,079 originally reported
Nearly 34,000 inmate phone calls to their attorneys were recorded, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department accessed calls 347 times
By Todd Harmonson
The Orange County Register
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Nearly 34,000 inmate phone calls to their attorneys were recorded, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department accessed calls 347 times, according to documents revealed in court proceedings Friday, Nov. 9.
The numbers are a significant – and, to some, alarming – spike from the 1,079 recorded calls Global Tel Link originally acknowledged in an August hearing. At that time, 58 of those recorded calls also were said to have been accessed by Sheriff’s Department or phone company investigators 87 times from January 2015 to July 2018.
Friday’s numbers were released three days after both the election for Orange County Sheriff – won by Undersheriff Don Barnes – and the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ renewal of GTL’s contract to handle jail communications for another year. Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the numbers could not be revealed sooner because they were under court seal.
Assistant public defender Scott Sanders said Friday that he does not believe the new disclosures come close to capturing the true number of client-attorney calls recorded by GTL, or the number of those calls that were accessed by the Sheriff’s Department. Both recording a phone call between an attorney and his or her client, and accessing that recording, could be violations of a confidentiality privilege considered one of the most sacrosanct tenets of U.S. law.
“They have not explained why the numbers are different, why they’ve grown,” said Sanders, who questioned the release of the information three days after the election. “These numbers are absurd, but it’s incredibly concerning that they’re changing at this amount.”
In a release distributed late Friday, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who plans to step down early next year, blamed GTL.
“The facts show that this is an error by GTL, an error that they are continually unable to fully disclose or explain,” Hutchens said. “We anticipate this will be exploited by some to perpetuate an anti-law enforcement narrative. We are confident that those who look at this situation objectively will recognize an error by a contractor does not constitute a conspiracy by law enforcement. To imply otherwise ignores the truth.”
GTL spokesman James Lee, however, said the company maintains that only the originally reported 1,079 calls to attorneys whose numbers were given to GTL for a do-not-record list were mistakenly recorded, saying, “We stand by that number.”
“GTL refutes the contentions made in the Sheriff’s Department’s press release,” Lee said. “We have been compliant with all requests for information and will continue to cooperate with the county, the sheriff and the court. We continue to ensure that all privileged calls are protected and inaccessible.”
Lee said he could not discuss the discrepancy between the 1,079 calls initially disclosed, and the new total of 33,812 – including 29,456 calls that were not completed and another 4,356 that were – because of a protective order issued by the court.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who remains well ahead of incumbent Tony Rackauckas in voting for Orange County District Attorney, has been a vocal critic of GTL and did not want the Board of Supervisors to renew its contract. He was not present for Tuesday’s vote on the contract because it was Election Day, but it would not have mattered because the extension passed 3-1.
On Friday, Spitzer tempered his comments out of an understanding that the nature of his relationship to the issue soon could change as he transitions from county supervisor to chief prosecutor.
“As this seems to be getting more expansive, and could involve all kinds of potential issues, I’m getting more and more uncomfortable – especially with what could be my new role – discussing this publicly,” Spitzer said.
The Sheriff’s Department’s release did not specify the number of times calls were accessed, but the number 347 was revealed in court. What remains unclear is the actual number of calls that were accessed – meaning they were listened to or downloaded by sheriff’s deputies or prosecutors – because any one call could have been accessed multiple times.
“Absolutely, it concerns the department,” said Braun.
She added that the department hasn’t been able to investigate the matter since Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett appointed a special master to conduct an investigation. On Friday, Braun confirmed that Prickett appointed a second special master.
Sanders, however, said Friday’s revelations confirm that there’s a problem with the calls not only being recorded by GTL, but listened to by the Sheriff’s Department.
“You keep accessing phone calls,” Sanders said. “When the phone calls were six times less, that was a problem. Now we have six times those numbers.
“Even with their numbers,” he added, “(It) says again that you knew you were accessing those calls and you kept doing it.”