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Lawsuit seeks $500M in Calif. jail phone scandal

The lawsuit claims deputies eavesdropped and recorded as many as 10,000 phone calls between prisoners and their attorneys since 2015

Scott Schwebke
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — A sweeping class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday seeking up to $500 million in damages amid allegations Orange County sheriff’s deputies eavesdropped and recorded as many as 100,000 phone calls between prisoners and their attorneys since 2015.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court by attorneys Richard P. Herman, Joel M. Garson and Nicholas P. Kohan, names Orange County and Sheriff Don Barnes as defendants. Specifically, it alleges civil rights violations and seeks $5,000 for each recorded phone call between inmates and their attorneys.

The dozen plaintiffs are all either inmates or attorneys.

Last year, Garson — who represents homicide suspect Josh Waring, the son of former “Real Housewives of Orange County” cast member Lauri Peterson — contended authorities eavesdropped on his client’s conversations from jail with lawyers and, therefore, knew his defense strategies.

Garson found that 34,000 recordings of confidential attorney-client conversations in Orange County were made by the jail’s phone vendor, GTL of Reston, Virginia, during a three-year period that ended about June 2018.

However, the lawsuit filed Thursday contends the number of monitored and recorded phone calls may have been misrepresented by GTL and the Sheriff’s Department and could total at least 100,000.

“We think that number of recorded phone calls has been consistently under-reported in the Waring litigation,” Herman said Thursday.

GTL has attributed the mistake to “human error,” explaining that attorneys’ phone numbers were not entered on a “do not record” list when its software was upgraded in January 2015.

The company had made the same mistake previously in two Florida counties, but didn’t tell anyone. In Orange County, GTL reported that 58 of the recorded calls were played, downloaded or burned to a CD a total of 87 times.

In addition to addressing the phone call scandal, the lawsuit also seeks unspecified damages for other alleged civil rights violations.

The complaint contends that more than 400 jail inmates are denied access to religious worship services because they are in protective custody.

“Those prisoners are not violent but include “snitches” and many others needing protection custody, ” the suit says. “Meaningful religious access for prisoners is a statutory and constitutional requirement.”

The complaint also alleges that some prisoners with mental health issues are kept in isolation often for years without access to mental health care and the jail’s day room, outdoor exercise area and chapel, exacerbating their psychological problems.

The complaint also alleges that inmate Jonathan Tieu, who, along with two other prisoners, escaped from the Orange County Jail in January 2016 and was later recaptured, was kept in disciplinary isolation for two years and deprived of medical and mental health care.

“As a result of these deprivations Jonathan Tieu has suffered mental and physical deterioration and distress,” the suit states. “His eyesight has deteriorated, he was provided with faulty glasses and presently cannot see the television.”

Finally, the lawsuit seeks damages for a female inmate who gave birth to a baby that allegedly died in custody due to lack of medical care.

Barnes said in a statement Thursday he and the county’s attorneys plan to review the lawsuit.

“At first glance, many of the allegations are rooted in a perspective that is anti-accountability,” Barnes said. “While I understand some disagree with the concept of jails, the fact is that they are the best means available for keeping dangerous offenders out of our community.

“As I stated when I took office just three months ago, I believe our deputies do a great job in fulfilling the responsibility for care and custody of our 6,000 inmates. However, we must always strive for improvement and, as sheriff, I have worked diligently to improve our operations, evident by the jail reorganization announced last week.”


©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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