Lawsuit claims county, tablet company had ‘back-door’ deal

Companies involved regular sparring partners in the legal system

By Jim Hagerty 

ROCKFORD — Winnebago County and the service provider tapped to provide tablets for jail inmates were in violation of state law when they hatched the contract, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The 109-page chancery complaint was filed by attorney Mike Hayes, on behalf of John Nelson, a Rockford lawyer who unsuccessfully ran against Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney, and Securus Technologies, a company that submitted a competing bid.

Hayes accuses the county board of having “back-door discussions” with Global Tel Link (GTL) to procure the company’s services, intentionally steering the winning bid away from Securus and other bidders. A pro-GTL public relations campaign while bids were still pending played a part in the steering, too, according to the suit. But, that’s not all the Nelson and Securus are claiming.

“The county and GTL engaged in fraud, collusion, in corruption,” the suit states.

The board, in August, voted 16-2 in favor of the contract with GTL. But, because the company failed to disclose that it was named in racketeering lawsuit in Mississippi, GTL’s RFP it submitted here was “a sham,” says the filing.

“Instead of disqualifying GTL for submitting a false and fraudulent proposal,” the lawsuit continues, “the county immediately began having back-door conversations with GTL, where GTL, at the specific request of county employees, revised and amended its offer, changed its pricing and added additional not originally included in its offer.”

One of those county employees is purchasing agent Ann Johns, who Hayes alleges emailed GTL asking for new pricing and for the company to supply the county with other services at no cost.

“As a response to Ms. Johns’ request, GTL amended its offer on June 23, 2017,” according to the complaint.

The amended proposal, Hayes said, was then sent to two jail officials. But, Securus and other bidders were not asked to amend their proposals.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to enter an injunction to void the GTL contract, require the county to conduct a new RFP process.

County officials The Times spoke to indicated they felt the lawsuit is without merit and that the RFP process was properly handled.

Dallas-based Securus and GTL are currently engaged in a length legal battle over the technology both implement. The current patent infringement case dates back to 2013. Both parties offered to dismiss the case in September. That motion is still pending in a Texas court.

The companies also routinely file lawsuits similar to the one brought in Winnebago County in response to losing bids.

Securus has also been party to suits brought by local and state governments. A lawsuit filed in 2014 in Austin, Texas found that the company had improperly stored details of more than 70 million inmate phone calls. Data from those calls was hacked, exposing attorney-client privileged information.

“This may be the most massive breach of the attorney-client privilege in modern U.S. history, and that’s certainly something to be concerned about,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “A lot of prisoner rights are limited because of their conviction and incarceration, but their protection by the attorney-client privilege is not.”

Another class action suit filed in Arkansas this year claims the Dallas-based Securus gouges call prices, charging prisoners up to 100-times more for phone calls than normal.

Families in Illinois pay more than $6.5 million per year to companies like Securus and GTL, making the state the 8th least-affordable for prisoner phone calls, according to the advocacy group Prison Phone Justice. The average cost of a 15-minute phone call from prison in Illinois is $3.63, the group says.

“Most of these contracts guarantee a substantial ‘commission’ kickback to the state or county agency contracting with them, which is usually based on a percentage of the gross revenue from phone calls made by prisoners,” PPJ says. “As a result, contracts often go to the company that offers the highest kickback, not the lowest calling rates.”

Tablets from GTL contain calling features, legal forms, GED software other apps. Calls will cost inmates 27.5 cents per minute, half of what they through the existing phone service. The county is slated to keep 23 cents per minute, which is estimated at nearly $900,000 per year. R.

Additional reporting by Shane Nicholson.

Read the lawsuit filed last week:

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