Prison phones ignite PSC board squabble

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With raised voices, angry epithets and stabbing fingers, one state regulator accused another Wednesday of trying to keep secret efforts to lowball a fine that would settle alleged violations of a campaign contributor.

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

He is one of the five elected members of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which oversees utility and telecommunication companies.

Campbell said PSC Chairman Eric Skrmetta, of Metairie, was trying to help out the owners of City Tele Coin Company, Inc., of Bossier City, a company contracted to provide phone services for inmates in about 30 parish and municipal jails around the state.

Skrmetta denied any wrongdoing.

Jerry Juneau, who owns City Tele Coin, and his wife gave Skrmetta’s campaign fund $10,000 on Dec. 10, 2013, according to the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

The PSC in 2006 refused to allow City Tele Coin to add surcharges to fees charged to inmates for using jailhouse phones. City Tele Coin started charging the additional fees in 2010 without the PSC voting on the increase, according to PSC documents.

In March 2013, the PSC found City Tele Coin and another private contractor of jailhouse phones were collecting unauthorized fees. The commission could impose fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

City Tele Coin offered $5,000 to settle the claims, according to a PSC staffer who asked not to be identified because employees were told not to discuss the issue publicly.

Another prison phone contractor, Securus Technologies, of Dallas, offered $2,500 to settle similar claims. Securus has a contract with the state Department of Corrections to provide inmate calling services to 10 state prisons.

Both offers were summarily rejected, Skrmetta said after the hearing. “The staff will be negotiating with these companies,” he added.

PSC rules require discussions about litigation and settlement negotiations be conducted behind closed doors in executive session. “We’re not hiding anything,” Skrmetta said.

“There is a very personal element to this, a whole lot of finger-pointing,” Skrmetta said, adding all commissioners receive campaign contributions from utilities and other companies that they regulate and make decisions about every day.

Skrmetta’s effort to take the settlement offer up in executive session prompted a heated 15-minute exchange during which he and Campbell told each other to be quiet and to stop interrupting.

“You can’t put words in my mouth,” Campbell told Skrmetta at one point

The chairman responded that Campbell was not recognized and what he said didn’t matter.

“It does matter. I say we make a motion that we take out the jail house phones from the executive session,” Campbell said. “This is worse than any payday loan scheme that’s ever hit the state of Louisiana. It’s terrible. It’s immoral. ... We got someone with thousands of charges and we go in there and try to cut a deal.”

The commission voted 3-2 to hold the discussion behind closed doors.

Commissioners Skrmetta, Scott Angelle, of Breaux Bridge; and Clyde Holloway, Forest Hill; voted for executive session. Commissioners Campbell and Lambert Boissiere III, of New Orleans, voted to air the issue in public.

The PSC in December 2012 cut the rates charged for all prison calls by 25 percent. The order required removal of all surcharges not specifically approved by the commission.

The Louisiana sheriffs, who run the parish prisons and use revenue from inmate phone calls to bolster their budgets, opposed the order.

Inmates are charged more because law enforcement is required to monitor calls that originate from behind prison walls, the sheriffs said.

Supporters, including Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and Baptist churches, argued the families of the incarcerated are the ones who are called upon to pay for the expensive phone calls.