Jail Bait

Getting sprung from the slammer has never been easier, and the life of a Miami bail bondsman has never been tougher

Unlike Viola, who says he now employs seven agents, Rodriguez has remained a one-man operation with a secretary at a cubbyhole office near the Orange Bowl. He keeps such a low profile, in fact, that many bondsmen don't know much about him -- a rarity in a profession with a well-developed grapevine, and an indication that he has stayed off the hustling circuit.

The 29-year-old Rodriguez sees Viola's case as a parable of changing times in Dade County. No doubt Viola has broken the law on occasion, says Rodriguez, but so have many other bondsmen who haven't been prosecuted. He agrees that Viola's real offense in the eyes of Miami's established bond community was being so successful so fast. Everyone, Rodriguez says, knows that several Miami agents have complained constantly about Viola to regulators in Tallahassee, virtually obligating the state to pursue Viola's case.

"Basically Jim does business different than the old-timers," explains Rodriguez amiably, two beepers and a black leather moneybag distributed around the ample waistband of his green Dockers. "The old-timers deal more with attorneys. Jim, on the other hand, is more out there in the street. They call it hustling, which is illegal supposedly, but he's been cleared of all that."

Bail bond association officers deny they have any special vendetta against Viola. "I'm surprised to hear that," says Russ Walters, Jr., the association president. "We have complained about other bondsmen, too. But if the insurance department wants to make him an example, what's wrong with that?"

And, adds bondsman Ed Sheppard, just because Viola's case was dismissed doesn't mean he was innocent. "His attorney was better than theirs. I hate to put down the insurance department, but it's incapable of sustaining any type of action against a bail bondsman."

Metro-Dade corrections officer Lorraine Cooper, who records show has been disciplined several times for hostility and "offensive conduct" toward fellow officers and superiors, walked into the Baker Bail Bonds office on NW Seventh Street in late January 1992 saying she wanted to file a complaint against Viola for soliciting at the main jail. Her right arm was injured and she wanted one of the bondsmen to write down her statement. Why she chose Baker Bail Bonds, which is several blocks from the jail, is unclear; Cooper has not responded to requests by New Times for an interview. Also puzzling is why the officer waited almost a month after the business card incident to file the complaint, and why she didn't follow the routine procedure of notifying her superiors at the jail about the alleged solicitation.

In any case, Gerald Laing, a member of the board of directors of the county bail bond association, took Cooper's statement; he says it was merely as a favor to the injured Cooper. His partner Mark Durkee notarized it. At the same time Cooper said she had complaints about five other bondsmen, and Laing and Durkee took down statements about them, too. Then they sent the papers up to Sally Burt, the state's bail bond coordinator in Tallahassee. All complaints against bondsmen must be in writing before they can be pursued.

Burt was accustomed to Dade County bondsmen accusing each other of all manner of wrongdoing, but proof -- such as affidavits from people who were solicited, photographs, several witnesses -- was always hard to come by. She had none of those in Viola's case. However, the six grievances did carry some weight, she says, because they came from a law enforcement officer. And they came accompanied by regular calls from Miami bondsmen, including Laing, who complained about soliciting and asked what she was going to do about those cases.

Burt's one-person operation in Tallahassee has no separate funding to handle bail bond cases. If she thinks a complaint should be pursued, she'll refer it to one of the department's investigators, who also probe everything from multimillion-dollar insurance fraud claims to insurance agents operating without a license. If investigators find some merit in the case, they refer it to the insurance department's legal division, where it's assigned to an attorney. These attorneys handle all the state's insurance cases and are not specially trained in bond matters.

During the last session of the state legislature, Burt submitted new legislation calling for a small surcharge on each bond written in the state, to fund a special bail bond investigative staff. The bill would have made soliciting a felony and for the first time included loitering in its definition of soliciting. It died in the Senate commerce committee as the session ended. Burt plans to resubmit essentially the same legislation at the next session, after working out some changes at an August 18 workshop.

In April 1992, according to investigative files, Burt sent the complaints about the six Dade bondsmen back to Miami, to the insurance department office here, and instructed investigators to look into the allegations. By early August investigator Berthon Powell had determined that at least three of the cases, including Rodriguez's, lacked evidence. Although he does not have the authority to close an investigation, Powell can recommend closure to the insurance department's legal division, which he did on those three cases. Viola's lawyer, Michael Levin, asserts that Powell assured him that the business card incident was "a joke" and that as far as he was concerned there was no evidence against Viola. Powell, however, says he never assured Viola of anything and that he was obligated to refer the case to the legal division because, unlike the other accused bondsmen, Viola neither responded to the charge nor submitted anything to refute it.

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