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Louisiana Prisoner Phone Charge Scandal Pushed to Closed Door Session

The Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) voted to keep the discussion about fines for companies that illegally placed surcharge fees on prisoner telephones behind closed doors.

City Tele Coin serves about 30 parish and municipal jails around Louisiana. In 2006, the PSC refused to allow the company to add surcharge fees for calls made by prisoners on jailhouse phones. Despite that order, City Tele Coin began adding the surcharge fees in 2010.

The PSC found City Tele Coin and Securus Techologies, which provide telephone services for prisoners at 10 Louisiana prisons, were collecting unauthorized surcharge fees upon their captive clientele. That March 2013 findings came only four months after the PSC cut by 25 percent the rates for all prison calls and ordered removal of all surcharges not specifically approved by the PSC.

Each violation for collection of unauthorized fees can result in fines up to $10,000. City Tele Coin offered $5,000 to settle the claims and Securus offered $2,500.

How to handle the matter resulted in a heated debate amongst PSC Commissioners, Eric Skrmetta, PSC’s Chairman, pushed to resolve the matter in a closed executive session that caused a raucous 15-minute exchange that saw Skrmetta and PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell to tell each other to be quiet and stop interrupting.

“This company could owe hundreds of thousands of dollars, and this company is offering pennies on the dollar,” said Campbell. “I’m not doing this behind closed doors.”

Campbell moved to keep the issue from executive session. The effort filed by a 3-2 vote. “We’re not hiding anything,” said Skrmetta, who noted PSC rules require discussion about litigation and settlements occur in executive session. “There is a very personal element to this, a whole lot of finger pointing.”

Critics point to the fact that on December 10, 2013 Jerry Juneau, who owns City Tele Coin, and his wife donated $10,000 to Skrmetta’s campaign fund. Skrmetta said all commissioners receive campaign contributions from utilities and other companies they regulate.

For now, the offers to settle the surcharge fee violations have been refused. “The (PSC) staff will be negotiation with these companies, “said Skrmetta.

“This is worse than any pay day loan scheme that’s ever hit the state of Louisiana, “said Campbell. “It’s terrible. It’s immoral…We got someone with thousands of charges and we go in there and try to cut a deal.”

Source: Baton Rouge Advocate

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