The Cumberland County Jail is seen in this 2020 photo. Credit: CBS 13

Maine lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Securus Technologies alleging the company illegally intercepted confidential phone calls between attorneys and inmates at county jails in violation of state and federal wiretapping laws.

Attorneys Jeremy Pratt, Robert Ruffner and John Tebbetts were named in the lawsuit filed on Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Bangor. But there are hundreds of potential plaintiffs, including lawyers and inmates whose calls may have been illegally intercepted by Securus Technologies at 13 county jails.

“I think that there’s a can of worms that has been opened up here,” said Tebbetts, a Presque Isle defense attorney named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Securus Technologies’ automated phone system recorded Tebbetts 304 times speaking with at least 50 inmates in the past year at the Aroostook County Jail, according to call records obtained by The Maine Monitor. Multiple law enforcement agents also downloaded or played back Tebbetts’ calls, documents filed with the class action show.

“It’s bad enough if they’re in the cloud somewhere and just sitting there — that’s not appropriate,” Tebbetts said. “But it’s significantly more alarming [that] law enforcement agents actually are downloading phone calls between me and my client.”

Communications between an attorney and client are confidential and protected under what is known as attorney-client privilege. State law bans any interference in these conversations. But, an investigation by The Maine Monitor found that those calls were recorded between at least 161 inmates and lawyers from 34 firms in a 12-month span by jails that contract with Securus Technologies.

Securus Technologies is a national provider of phone and video software for correctional facilities. Thirteen of Maine’s fifteen county jails contract with the Texas-based company to manage inmate phone calls, video visits and tablet rentals — including phone calls, text messages and emails exchanged with attorneys.

Securus Technologies did not respond to an emailed request for comment in time for publication.

The class action alleges that the company illegally intercepted, recorded and released to third parties recordings of phone conversations between attorneys and clients. The lawsuit asks the court to order Securus Technologies to cease recording inmate phone calls unless it can screen out conversations between attorneys and clients. It also asks for copies of all the recorded calls to be released to affected counsel and destroyed.

“I think that a lawsuit is the only thing that’s going to wake Securus up,” said Pratt, a defense lawyer on Maine’s midcoast who was the first to publicly report that his calls were being recorded by a jail in April.

Pratt stopped investigating the release of his calls after he settled his clients’ case with the Office of the Attorney General. But he was “surprised by the vast scope” of attorney-client calls that have since been discovered at other jails, Pratt said on Friday.

The Office of the Attorney General disclosed to Tebbetts in early May that a detective possessed calls between him and an inmate.

Marc Malon, a spokesman for Maine’s attorney general’s office, confirmed in a written statement on Monday that the Cumberland County Jail had “inadvertently” sent the calls to a detective. Upon discovering the calls, the detective did not listen to more of the recordings, Malon said.

Prosecutors handed over the recordings to Tebbetts, but did not specify which calls the detective had heard. Identifying which conversations the detective may have listened to is an enormous task with even bigger consequences.

Portland-based criminal defense attorney Robert Ruffner is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday against Securus Technologies. The lawsuit alleges that the telecommunications company illegally recorded protected calls between Maine attorneys and county jail inmates, including Ruffner and his clients.

The client — identified only as “John Doe” in the lawsuit — faces “extremely serious” felony charges and decades in prison if convicted. Tebbetts had significant conversations about every aspect of his case over the phone, after the inmate was transferred from Aroostook to Cumberland County Jail, five hours away from Tebbetts.

“There’s 500 phone calls. I’m looking for a needle in the haystack, and they’re unlabeled,” Tebbetts said.

The attorney general’s office intends to continue to pursue its case against the unnamed inmate despite the release of confidential calls between him and his attorney.

This is the second batch of privileged attorney-client calls known to be released to the Office of the Attorney General in the past year. The Maine Monitor, previously Pine Tree Watch, reported in May that a call between Pratt — another plaintiff in the class action suit — and an inmate at the Somerset County Jail was discovered by a prosecutor after it was sent to the attorney general’s office. Somerset County contracts with another phone vendor, GTL — Global Tel Link.

Additional legal action against GTL or government agencies is still being considered, said Bob Cummins, a Portland attorney and one of three co-counsel representing the plaintiffs in the class action.

“The lawyers have an interest as do the inmates, and it’s not unlikely that there might be additional actions,” Cummins said on Friday.

The attorney general’s office did not answer whether it had discovered any additional privileged recordings in 2020 or whether it would change any policies to prevent the future disclosure of confidential phone calls from the jails.

“We stand by the statement we provided you, which was responsive to your inquiry. As I noted earlier, prosecutors and detectives are not entitled to communications between attorneys and their clients and do not want such communications,” Malon said in response to follow up questions on Monday.

Malon directed The Maine Monitor to a letter sent by the Maine Prosecutors Association to sheriffs and jail administrators on July 13 stating that prosecutors cannot legally listen, nor do they want to obtain, the recordings of phone calls between defense attorneys and their clients. The letter said it is “imperative that all attorney contact information is obtained by the jail” to prevent disclosure of attorney-client calls.

But the total number of protected attorney-client calls that were recorded by Securus Technologies in Maine remains unknown. Multiple counties have not yet released call records to the state or press.

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office has so far refused to release public records on how many calls Securus Technologies recorded at its jail. Kennebec, Knox, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington and York counties have also not released any records.

Waldo, Oxford and Two Bridges Regional Jail reported to the state that they had found no recordings of attorney-client calls.

Cumberland County Jail Administrator Maj. Tim Kortes said the sheriff’s office would not comment on an ongoing criminal prosecution. He said the jail relies on lawyers to register their phone numbers with the jail’s automated system so that their conversations will not be recorded. As a second layer of protection there is an announcement that the call is being recorded, and Kortes advised lawyers and inmates to hang up if they do not want to be recorded.

“We can always do better of course, and we are exploring with our vendor additional safeguards that may be possible,” Kortes said in a written statement.

Records obtained by The Maine Monitor through the Freedom of Access Acts in Aroostook, Androscoggin and Franklin counties revealed that at least 837 phone calls between state defense attorneys and inmates were recorded at the three county jails in a 12-month span.

Pratt said that based on the trends in these counties, he found it hard to believe that attorney-client calls were not also being recorded at the other county jails that have not yet released call records.

Nearly all phone calls made by inmates are recorded by Securus Technologies, but jail administrators are contractually obligated to manage exemptions for confidential communications with lawyers, medical personnel and clergy, according to a review of multiple contracts by The Maine Monitor.

Tebbetts believes he provided his phone number to Securus Technologies and the Aroostook County Jail and instructed both not to record his calls. Yet, the recordings appear to have gone on for years, he said.

Tebbetts said he appreciated that Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen released all information the county jail had on his calls. The remaining counties’ refusal to do the same is what prompted the class action.

“This is why we had to file a lawsuit. To figure out the extent of the problem and what to do about it,” Tebbetts said. “I’m not sure why they’re hiding things here. Eventually it’s going to come out. I’m disappointed that they decided that they are buttoning up and not turning over things as freely as they should.”

Securus Technologies will have 30 days to file a response after it is served the lawsuit.

Story by Samantha Hogan. The Maine Monitor is a bi-weekly local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic news organization based in Augusta. Our public-facing website is themainemonitor.org.