Skip navigation

HRDC accuses FCC Chairman Pai of conflict of interest re prison phone calls

NY Post, Aug. 10, 2017.

FCC chairman under fire for ‘conflict of interest’ in sale of prison phone company

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is getting called out by a human rights group in a controversy over pricey phone calls for prisoners.

Pai has a “clear conflict of interest” in approving a sale of prison phone company Securus Technologies to Platinum Equity Partners, the Human Rights Defense Center has said in a Wednesday letter to FCC Secretary Marlene Dortch that was reviewed by The Post.

More broadly, Pai, appointed by President Trump to lead the panel earlier this year, has a conflict of interest in trying to roll back Obama-era regulations on prison phone companies, the Human Rights Defense Center says.

Securus has been accused of charging extraordinarily high phone rates to families of inmates.

Platinum Equity in May agreed to buy Securus for $1.5 billion and is waiting for FCC approval.

Pai before becoming an FCC Commissioner in 2012 and FCC Chair in 2017 represented Securus when a partner with the law firm Jenner & Block, the Human Rights Defense Center alleges.

In a July 7 statement sent to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation as part of his FCC reconfirmation process, Pai said he did a “limited amount of work” from April 2011 through May 2012 for law firm Jenner & Block.

The clients Pai lists include Securus Technologies, according to a copy of the questionnaire provided to The Post by the Human Rights Defense Center.

Under Pai this year, the FCC has failed to counter the phone industry’s recent legal challenges to a 2015 decision on prison phone rates challenged by the phone companies, according to the human rights group.

In October 2015 the FCC capped rates on phones calls to jails and prisons across the country — handing a sizable victory to inmates’ families while slicing the profits of the two dominant prison phone companies, Securus and Global Tel-Link.

“The FCC is working to rein in the excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls paid by some of society’s most vulnerable people: families trying to stay in touch with loved ones serving time in jail or prison,” the FCC said in a press release at the time.

Private equity firms profited handsomely over the years by owning the prison phone companies, charging inmates’ families up to 32 cents a minute to call an incarcerated friend or family member.

Inmates make collect calls, and the people who accept the charges pay the prison phone systems, mostly through pre-paid phone cards.

The Federal Communications Commission ruled to cap that rate at 11 cents.

Prisons have their own closed phone systems that connect with outside phone networks.

A US Court of Appeals in June granted a Securus petition for a stay halting the rate caps that have largely not yet taken effect.

Pai, eight days after becoming FCC chairman, ordered FCC lawyers not to defend the rate caps, the Human Rights Defense Center alleges.

The FCC did not return immediate calls for comment.