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Is Orange County D.A. Candidate Sending Mixed Signals on Jail Phone Company’s Contract?

Todd Spitzer blasted Global Tel Link for recording attorney-client phone calls, but his campaign won’t call on a PAC supporting his candidacy to return the company’s lobbyist’s donation.

Orange County supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running for district attorney.Flickr/spitzer4da

In July, Global Tel Link, the jail phone contractor for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in California, disclosed that it had recorded over a thousand attorney-client phone calls between 2015 and 2018. These calls are supposed to be private to ensure that defendants have full access to the legal counsel guaranteed to them by the Sixth Amendment. In California, secretly listening in on these calls is a felony, yet over a dozen sheriff’s department employees reportedly did so. Orange County public defenders alleged that the company and the sheriff’s department knew about the recordings and have engaged in a cover-up.

In the wake of the scandal, Todd Spitzer, an Orange County supervisor and candidate for district attorney, called on the county to rescind its contract with Global Tel Link (GTL). “Spitzer Calls for Termination of Jail Phone Vendor after Eavesdropping Occurs,” his press release was titled. “Spitzer Doesn’t Buy ‘Human Error’ Excuse,” it proclaimed.

But roughly a month later, a PAC supporting Spitzer’s candidacy received a $5,000 donation from Townsend Public Affairs Inc., a lobbying firm that represents GTL.

While the donation went to an independent PAC rather than the campaign itself, at least one good-government expert questioned the PAC’s decision to accept a donation linked to a company whose contract its candidate presides over as supervisor. If Spitzer were to win the Orange County district attorney’s race next month, he could also choose to investigate GTL’s role in the improper recordings.

“People get that PACs organized to support candidates probably know what candidates want, and donors know that donating to them will get noticed,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. If Spitzer’s team wants to be as “squeaky clean as possible,” she said, it would publicly call on the PAC to return the money.

John Thomas, a chief strategist for Spitzer, vehemently denied that the contribution to the PAC could pose any conflict of interest and declined to publicly call on the PAC to return the money. The campaign follows the rules, Thomas said in a phone call, and thus “has absolutely no connection” to the PAC, known as the Crime Survivors PAC Supporting Spitzer for District Attorney 2018. He also questioned whether the lobbying firm’s contribution was even connected to GTL, noting that the firm has many other clients.

But this isn’t the first time that Spitzer was linked to a questionable donation involving GTL. A few years ago, the Voice of OC reported that Spitzer and another supervisor, Shawn Nelson, suddenly tempered their criticisms of GTL’s costly prisoner phone calls after receiving campaign donations from GTL. According to that report, in 2014, GTL donated $1,900, the maximum possible, to Spitzer’s and Nelson’s reelection campaigns for supervisor.

Asked about these past donations, Thomas, told The Appeal, “No political contribution has ever, nor will it ever, affect Todd Spitzer’s policy-making decisions.”

In an email, GTL spokesperson James Lee declined to comment on its past direct contributions to Spitzer, and said that Townsend Public Affairs “has been active in Orange County campaigns long before GTL ever became a client.” Christopher Townsend did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the potential conflict of interest posed by the campaign cash.

Damian Fussel, campaign manager for Spitzer’s opponent, incumbent DA Tony Rackauckas, blasted the Spitzer campaign’s “mealy-mouthed” response on the PAC contribution and said the money should be given back immediately. “Todd continues to double deal with Global Tech Link by saying negative things about them in public yet slyly pocketing their money,” Fussel said.

He noted that in August, Rackauckas’s campaign had immediately returned $2,000 that Townsend Public Affairs tried to donate on Aug. 23.

Global Tel Link is not the only company to be caught up in controversy over the recording of attorney-client phone calls. In 2015, The Intercept obtained a massive trove of prisoner phone calls, leaked by a hacker who felt that the prison phone company Securus was violating prisoners’ rights. In the data dump, The Intercept identified what appeared to be at least 14,000 recordings of conversations between prisoners and attorneys, suggesting that privileged information was being improperly recorded on a large scale.

A 1978 appeals court decision, United States v. Levy, held that “free two-way communication between client and attorney is essential” for the professional assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney clause “to be meaningful.”

But not all prosecutors choose to respect this interpretation of the Sixth Amendment. In Orleans Parish, Louisiana, for example, the office of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has listened in on attorney-client jail calls for years. In 2017, Cannizzaro’s office allowed defense attorneys to register landline phone numbers, whose calls are not to be recorded, but continues to allow the recording of cell phone calls made by attorneys.  Such practices have pushed some defense attorneys there to stop communicating with clients on the phone altogether, forcing them to rely on in-person visits to prisoners, which take more time.

On Tuesday, Orange County’s Board of Supervisors will hold a meeting to discuss the future of Global Tel Link’s contract. An Orange County supervisor, who requested anonymity citing fears of professional reprisal, questioned the seeming discrepancies between Spitzer’s public rhetoric and the framing of his office’s agenda items on the issue, which seem to leave open the possibility of the company staying on. “It is odd that he was adamant about terminating the contract at first,” the supervisor noted, “yet now he’s put language with wiggle room to renegotiate.”

Asked why Spitzer seems to have softened on his call for contract termination since his original press release, Thomas said the press release was simply “calling for a deeper look at the situation.”