Trump's FCC Chair Backed Off Obama-Era Rule On Inmate Calls That Hurt An Ex-Client

An inmate advocacy group publicized Ajit Pai's prior work this week.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, did legal work for Securus Technologies before he became an FCC commissioner.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, did legal work for Securus Technologies before he became an FCC commissioner.
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

WASHINGTON ― Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai backed off from Obama-era regulations that sought to make phone calls more affordable for inmates but that also hurt one of Pai’s former clients: Securus Technologies, an inmate calling service provider.

The Human Rights Defense Center, an inmate advocacy group that brought Pai’s disclosure about his work for Securus to light this week, finds the connection troubling. However, an FCC spokesperson told HuffPost that his work “was cleared through the ethics office.”

Pai listed Securus as one of the “few clients” that he did a “limited amount of work for” between April 25, 2011, and May 6, 2012, as a partner with the law firm Jenner & Block. (He also listed AOL, HuffPost’s parent company.) Pai disclosed his client list to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in 2011 before he was confirmed as an FCC commissioner, and again in 2017 for his pending confirmation as chairman. Jenner & Block and Securus did not respond to HuffPost inquiries about the nature of Pai’s work.

When inmates and family members stay in touch, that can lower recidivism and assist with rehabilitation. Until the 1990s, inmates could make calls at about the same rates as other people, according to The New York Times. But over the next few decades, companies like Securus made enormous profits by charging inmates and their families more money.

Securus warned in 2015 that an Obama-era proposal capping inmate phone rates and fees could be a “business-ending event.” After the rule passed in a 3-2 vote (Pai dissented), providers, including Securus, sued to overturn it.

About a week after Pai became chairman, the FCC said it would no longer defend the key part of that rule. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Obama-era regulations on in-state calls from jails and prisons in June, advocates blamed the decision in part on the FCC’s retreat. (The D.C. Circuit majority said the provisions could not survive legal review.)

The lack of price caps has permitted companies like Securus to charge more than $11 for a 15-minute intrastate call from more than 60 correctional facilities in Michigan, according to Lee Petro, pro bono counsel for a group of prisoner advocates known collectively as the Wright Petitioners. (Petro declined to comment on the filing.)

The Human Rights Defense Center claims Pai’s prior relationship is a conflict of interest and is asking Pai to recuse himself from all actions and decisions involving Securus and other inmate phone service providers. They are also asking Pai to disclose any financial relationship he may have with these companies.

It’s not so uncommon for FCC officials, both Republican and Democrat, to have prior ties with companies they oversee. Pai, for example, previously worked as an attorney for Verizon, HuffPost’s other parent company. In his disclosure, Pai noted that during his time working with Securus and other companies, he did not appear before the FCC, Congress, executive agencies or in any court in connection with that work.

But while Pai’s work with Verizon is well-documented, the newly publicized Securus tie raises questions, in part because inmate calling services are dominated by only a few providers.

“Hopefully the [Senate] committee will ask for more information about what exactly he did for them before holding a confirmation vote,” Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told HuffPost. “For there to be conflict, there needs to be more than just the previous relationship. It’s really important to know what that relationship actually entailed.” Pai will need to be reconfirmed by the Senate before the end of the year to continue as FCC chairman.

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