Jail Bait

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

About a dozen Metro-Dade Department of Corrections officers, most in their uniforms of forest green pants and light green shirts, were bunched together in the small waiting area outside the courtroom on the eighth floor of the Dade County Courthouse. Sitting, standing, leaning, talking, chortling. All at that very moment earning somewhere from $10 to $35 per hour. In good spirits. Waiting to testify at a hearing called this past April by the Florida Department of Insurance, the agency that regulates the state's bail bond industry. The hearing concerned an allegation of illegal business solicitation lodged by a corrections officer against a Miami bondsman.

Inside courtroom 800, where the waiting officers' conversations were audible through the closed doors, everyone else was waiting, too. Not in good spirits. The prosecution's star witness -- only witness -- was either extremely late or just wasn't going to show up. Linda Rigot, the administrative judge who had flown down from Tallahassee the night before, frowned and pursed her lips. The lawyer prosecuting the case for the Department of Insurance, Richard Thornburg, who had also flown down from Tallahassee, cast dark glances at cracking, rotted sections of the old courtroom wall. Michael Levin, the defense attorney, sighed and shifted his shoulders inside his suit jacket. His client, bail bondsman James Viola, who at that moment was incurring $175 per hour in legal fees, sat very still, occasionally shaking his head.

Around noon Rigot called a lunch recess and advised Thornburg that he was running out of time to find his witness, corrections officer Lorraine Cooper. A few of the other officers thought she might be at another hearing several blocks away. Thornburg raced over. No trace of Cooper. She wasn't due at work until 3 p.m., and there had been no answer on her home phone all morning. Without her the state had even less of a case than it had started with, which wasn't much.

Finally Judge Rigot concluded that she had no alternative but to call the whole thing off. She told Thornburg and Levin she would recommend dismissal of the case with prejudice, meaning it could not be reopened at a future date. Although her recommendation would have to be formally approved by State Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, it was rare for a hearing judge's final recommendation to be overturned. Defense attorney Levin had even subpoenaed Gallagher to testify at the hearing, but the commissioner wasn't there; he had challenged the subpoena, saying it wasn't his function to testify at administrative hearings. Viola, smiling tentatively, walked out to tell an associate that the legal problem weighing on him for a year was about to be lifted. The corrections officers, who also had been subpoenaed by Levin to challenge Cooper's credibility, rode the elevator down in green clusters and strolled out into the afternoon sun on Flagler Street.

Cooper had accused Viola of displaying his business card in the window of his car while parked outside the entrance to the main Dade County jail on NW Thirteenth Street. Florida law prohibits such self-promotion any place prisoners are held, unless a bondsman is specifically conducting bond business, and Cooper claimed Viola offered no evidence that he was working at the time. Viola countered that Cooper was inventing the scenario to harass him at the urging of other bondsmen who wanted him out of business. And in fact, Cooper had sought the assistance of two Miami bondsmen, Gerald Laing and his partner Mark Durkee, in filing her complaint against Viola.

Nevertheless the insurance department charged Viola with soliciting business, a second-degree misdemeanor. (Under Florida law, prosecutions of bail bondsmen are handled by the administrative hearings division instead of the State Attorney's Office.) Then the department spent thousands of dollars trying to make it stick, even as it grappled with an expensive, debilitating post-Hurricane Andrew insurance crisis. And in the end, even if the prosecution had been successful, there's little doubt that a visible and probably growing chunk of the county's 200 bondsmen would continue to rely on solicitation of some sort to get business, much of it more egregious than a card on a car window.

So why go after Jim Viola? In another time and place, such a case may not have gotten very far. But these days it almost had to grow naturally from the ferment of Dade County's brutish bail bond industry. True, the bond business has always had a sleazy reputation, at least partly deserved. But sleaze isn't the issue anymore in Miami. Survival is the issue. And Viola's case offers a glimpse into the increasingly competitive world of the bail bond industry here, by far the most dense pocket of bondsmen in the state, and too unwieldy for the law to penetrate.

For fifteen years Ed Sheppard's mother, Olivia, was a bondsman (both male and female bond agents call themselves bondsmen) in the Miami of the Sixties and Seventies. Sheppard, tall and ruddy-faced with blond hair and mustache, followed his mother into the business in 1975, when the big bonds were on marijuana importers, usually local shop owners or car dealers or other entrepreneurs who distributed the weed on the side. Inside a decade, increasing immigration from Latin America and huge sums of money from the cocaine trade had transformed Miami. A lot of bail bondsmen were getting very rich, along with everyone else whose business had anything to do with cocaine. To keep up with the activity Ed Sheppard's wife, Sharla Demsky, a former legal secretary, became certified as a bondsman so she could handle the calls that came to the office when he was out of town.

"So much money was flowing into Miami then," Sheppard recalls. "Cash was everywhere." But compared to the generally peaceable hometown kids who had fallen into the marijuana business because Miami was on the shipping lanes, the Sheppards' new clients were different. The cocaine traffickers weren't usually from Miami and if they were arrested and released on bond, they were more likely to leave town than show up for trial. That left the bonding agent liable for the entire $50,000 or $500,000 or whatever the amount of the bond. This was assuming that the bondsman wasn't able to catch the suspect and put him back in jail within 35 days, which he probably couldn't because the suspect was hidden away somewhere in central or South America. And not only did the new drug traffickers carry firearms, they didn't hesitate to use them. So while the money-making potential was great for the 100 or so bondsmen in the Miami of the mid-Eighties, they learned to be more suspicious judges of character and to make sure the collateral was good on the bonds they wrote.

By the late Eighties cocaine traffic through Miami was thinning because of stepped-up interdiction by the U.S. government. That wasn't a big worry for the bail bond industry; Miami had always been a good crime town, a frontier town, a refuge for outlaws from all over the world. But by the late Eighties, bondsmen were worrying about a program called Pretrial Services. Every year thousands of people were getting out of jail free under the county-funded pretrial release program, which allows selected felony defendants to leave jail without having to post bond.

Pretrial release was created in 1966 in Dade County to assist people charged with nonviolent felonies who couldn't afford to post bond. Since then Pretrial Services has expanded into a $2.7 million-per-year program that operates principally to relieve jail overcrowding. Financial hardship is no longer a consideration; if Pretrial Services workers can verify the detainee's address and determine that his or her ties to the community are stable enough, chances of pretrial release are good, even if the inmate has a string of prior felony arrests and convictions. Like independent bondsmen, Pretrial Services is supposed to keep track of each suspect to ensure that he or she shows up for all scheduled court hearings. However, without financial incentive to appear in court, many accepted for pretrial release disappear. Statistics computed by the Dade County Bail Bond Association show 28 percent of inmates released to Pretrial Services in 1992 failed to appear at trial. (The Metro-Dade Corrections Department, which administers the program, says the true figure is closer to seven percent.) The forfeiture rate for those bonded out by private bondsmen, according to Ed Sheppard, ranges from five to twelve percent, with most caught and returned to jail within 35 days.

The first six months of this year, 10,508 people were released to Pretrial Services; a total of 19,150 were released during all of 1992. Meanwhile, the Metro-Dade Police Department recorded fewer felony arrests: 24,178 arrests for the first six months of 1993 compared to 29,267 at the same time last year, and 34,552 during the same period in 1989. Bondsmen agree there's just less bond business to go around. And because only the most incorrigible felons or those charged with the worst crimes are not accepted into pretrial release, the bondsmen are left with so-called bad bonds -- difficult cases, higher risks.

Yet the bondsman population in Dade County has swelled in recent years to about 220 today. No one is quite sure why more people are opting to scrap for less business. One explanation is that many established bondsmen have been responding to the shortage by hiring "executing agents" (other bondsmen) to bring in more clients on commission. But those agents subsequently go into business for themselves and in turn hire other executing agents. Many bondsmen just want to be their own boss and find their profession to be one of the few in which they can be independent. Even if work is scarce, bonds are generally set higher in Dade than most Florida counties, so a single agent doesn't have to work a lot to get by, especially if he doesn't rent an office and operates out of his car, which many do even though a bondsman is required by Florida law to have an office open eight hours a day during the week.

Ed Sheppard and Sharla Demsky, who don't employ executing agents, find the phones in their two-person office ringing less and less. It wouldn't be quite so bad, they say, if the hustlers weren't illegally siphoning off much of the business that would otherwise come to them and to other established agents. Hustlers, who are usually licensed bondsmen, go where the prospective bonds are A to the jail or to the bond hearings on the fifth floor of the Metro Justice Building on NW Twelfth Street. Just as lawyers are prohibited from attempting to pick up business where the most vulnerable prospective clients are -- such as at hospitals or disaster scenes -- so bondsmen are restricted from doing the same around concentrations of prisoners. But there are ways to get around that. The bond hustle has a hundred variations, some clearly illegal, others merely questionable.

Bondsmen will wait around with their cellular phones and beepers, perhaps wearing the county ID card all bondsmen have, until the sister of a prisoner asks them for help, or they'll offer their services to the mother of an inmate who has been denied pretrial release. Several bondsmen always show up for the bond hearings held twice a day during the week at which judges set bond on new arrestees. Even though most bondsmen attend bond hearings only when a client requests it, or when they have a specific problem to resolve with court officials, the same faces appear at the hearings with a suspicious regularity. "Oh, you're not supposed to be here unless you've got a client here," explains one of those faces. "And I do."

Jonathon Shorthouse, a hulking blond bondsman with a wild glint in his gray eyes, says he comes to the bond hearings "to do my homework." Sometimes, he explains, he'll discover one of his forfeitures -- a person for whom he put up bond who didn't come to court -- has been rearrested. Sometimes that person will be released to Pretrial Services, and Shorthouse will have to track him down. Those kinds of discoveries, of course, don't happen every day, but Shorthouse says he tries to attend as many bond hearings as he can so he'll be ready when they do.

Bond hearings can be a rich opportunity for soliciting. A bondsman can write down the name of an inmate denied pretrial release at the hearing, then walk across the street to the jail, ask to interview that prisoner, and in the process illegally offer to bond him out or simply let the inmate ask for help. Bondsmen often interview prisoners before posting bond to ascertain if they're worth the risk; that's perfectly legal, though approaching the prisoner first is not. Usually it's impossible to prove one way or the other.

Many bondsmen consider it necessary to use direct-sell tactics of some sort to establish themselves in a cutthroat market. Others advocate building a business the slower, traditional, way A by joining clubs to make contacts, doing community service, meeting attorneys, calling friends. It may seem strange, bondsmen say, but even the most upstanding acquaintances eventually yield business referrals. "Business is not good anywhere in Dade County because of pretrial release, but that doesn't mean I'm going to break the law," says Flo Clein, who started in the trade eight years ago. Her husband Joe, a veteran Miami bondsman, left the business to her and his brother when he died almost four years ago. A cordial, energetic woman with curly brown hair, Clein works out of a comfortable wood-paneled office on NW Seventh Avenue under a highway overpass on the southern edge of Overtown. "I'm going to have to make other contacts or go out of business," she continues. "You have to get out there and work; join the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club. It takes years. People who hustle want it now. Not everyone can make $100,000 their first year [a good income for an established bondsman with overhead], but if you go to the jail and the bond hearings and hustle, you can make a lot more than if you didn't."

In less than three years, Jim Viola had developed a substantial clientele by working long hours at the Dade County jail and courthouse; his critics contend that he was hustling, but he says he built his business by writing every bond he could, including those more cautious bondsmen wouldn't have touched. Cultivating a clientele -- repeat customers -- is the key to success, bondsmen say; most of the people who are in jail, especially those with higher bonds, have been in before and will be in again.

Viola, 32, came to Miami five years ago from New Jersey to open a nightclub. He took up bail bonds after the club closed. Although he looked more like a clean-cut bartender than the scruffy image commonly held of a bondsman, Viola discovered he had a talent for the business. People liked him, even peers who didn't approve of his methods. He made a decent, though losing, showing last November when he ran for president of the county bail bond association.

But those long hours at the jail and courthouse were a frequent point of contention; Viola maintained he was doing nothing illegal and that the other bondsmen were upset because he was doing more business than they were. "The more established companies don't want a new guy coming in," Viola says. "They want to knock me out of business. This soliciting charge is the only thing they have to try to screw me over."

"He tells us everyone is jealous of him because he runs his business differently," Sheppard retorts. "Well, he breaks the law. It's against Florida statutes to loiter or solicit anywhere prisoners are confined. He and his people tend to drum up their business that way. There's a core group of maybe a dozen that continue to do that, and it's gotten worse probably in the last year."

Another bondsman, who doesn't want his name used, says he's never complained about Viola but nevertheless is blunt in his estimation: "Jim's the best at hustling. You can't beat him. Common knowledge. I know I've lost bonds to him. [The county bail bond association officers] were trying to get him out because he was hurting their pocket. It hurts everybody."

To the point that Sheppard and his wife wonder if it's worth staying in the business. Sunlight streams through the windows of their small, modern office near the main jail; long, idle intervals stretch the days. Sheppard has been trying to get two members of a Miami family out of jail in Anahuac, Texas, but after four days insurance agents there still haven't put up the bond money. He and Sharla joke about the recalcitrant Texans messing up their chances for the biggest bond commission they've had in a while and about the fact that it had to come all the way from Texas instead of Dade County. But they're serious about the professional dilemma they're facing.

"If things continue the way they are, with people soliciting and drawing off business, and pretrial release drawing off business, and more agents coming in, I actually have to make a decision," says Sheppard, a member of the county bail bond association board of directors. "Either I have to start breaking the law or I close the office. And I didn't work for eighteen years to go into some other business." Still, he doesn't plan to run for re-election to the board during this November's election. "Let someone else go to all the meetings and meet with the county commissioners. I'm tired of working for the good of the industry when the only ones who benefit are the hustlers."

Veteran bondsman Don Sinclair, for whom Viola worked when he first started in the business, has become even more jaded. "At one time I was all gung-ho against hustling," he says gruffly. "I wouldn't let my people do it. Now I've reversed completely. Let me put it to you this way: If we could control pretrial release, everybody would stand a chance. We can't, so everybody's out there doing what they gotta do to make a living. I don't see any solution. I'm planning on getting out."

Jim Viola's bail bond office, a white concrete building with a terra cotta tile roof, sits on a small asphalt parking lot on the busy corner of NW Eleventh Street and Twenty-Second Avenue. It's dark inside, no windows; Viola's secretary keeps an eye on a video monitor attached to an outside security camera. A solitary metal desk occupies each of two tiny back rooms.

Viola is at the main jail this morning, trying to arrange bond for a repeat customer, a man arrested on drug charges several months ago and released on bond; the man is locked up again for possession of cocaine and marijuana and other illegal drugs. As Viola heads for the south entrance of the jail where prisoners are released, a woman with two small girls approaches him tentatively. "¨Fianzista?" she asks. Barely able to hold back the tears, she covers her mouth with her hand when she isn't talking.

"Si," Viola says, recognizing the word for bondsman, though he doesn't speak much Spanish. The woman murmurs with great embarrassment that her husband was arrested the night before, "for fighting with me," and she wants to get him out of jail. She shows Viola the checkbook from her husband's body shop business. His bond is $5000; they can pay the $500 premium. All bondsmen say they like domestic violence bonds because the men almost always make up with their wives or girlfriends. They'll show up in court and tell the judge everything's rosy.

Viola says he'll try to help the woman. They head over to the release area, where he fills out paperwork to get his client released and inquires about the woman's husband. The officers on duty say they'll check where he is and whether he can be released. While they wait, who should walk in but Mark Durkee. He is one of the bondsmen who, a year and a half ago, assisted with the original solicitation complaint to Tallahassee against Viola by corrections officer Lorraine Cooper. Durkee is at the jail to write a $1000 DUI bond. The two men are cordial, although the atmosphere is strained. But here they are, both at the mercy of the labyrinthine jail processes, so they might as well make the best of it. "You must be doing pretty good, buddy, with that gold watch and those fancy beepers," Durkee banters.

"It's just a beeper," Viola says defensively. He's wearing jeans and a Gold's Gym T-shirt and carries an expandable leather briefcase from which he pulls a bond furnished by his insurance company. He hands it to the officers behind the glass windows in the waiting room.

The conversation begins to turn serious. Viola asserts that his long legal ordeal came about because Durkee and other bondsmen want to ruin him. Durkee says that's ridiculous, adding that in retrospect, for appearances' sake, he and his partner Gerald Laing probably shouldn't have helped Cooper write her complaint. "Listen, buddy, it's over now," Durkee says. "Let's put this behind us and work together. Pretrial release is the real enemy." Viola isn't so willing; he's still fuming over his $12,000 legal expenses and his certainty that he has been unfairly singled out as a hustler.

But then the corrections officers call Viola to tell him the woman's husband will be out on pretrial release in a few hours. He misses out on an easy $500. No longer a big surprise for a bondsman. Viola explains the situation to the woman in a combination of Spanish and English, and she smiles broadly, for once revealing the missing teeth.

"Did I do anything wrong?" Viola asks rhetorically as the woman herds her girls out the door. "That woman came up to me; I never said a word to her." Durkee says he wouldn't have agreed to post bond for her; he would have pointed out the list of licensed bondsmen that hangs on the walls of the jail and let her call one. His DUI detainee walks into the waiting room, and they leave. A few minutes later Viola's client limps out in a filthy white T-shirt and jeans. Under a few days' worth of beard and a haystack of hair is a hollow face and darting blue eyes. He starts talking immediately. "Man, what a bad day I had! First my girlfriend broke up with me, then I got shot, and then this. Look at this shit." He pulls up the legs of his jeans to reveal dark scabs scattered over his shins. "Some of the gunshot is still in there. They didn't even take it all out. Oh, man!" He explains that the police never would have found the drugs if one of his friends hadn't called 911 after he was shot. Viola doesn't bother asking who shot him, or why.

"Come on," he says evenly. "Your brother's going to meet us over at my office." They get into Viola's white Subaru across the street.

Across the street from the county courthouse on Flagler, bondsman Ricardo Rodriguez takes a deep, relaxing breath and opens the door to another bond agent's office. He's here to make damn sure this guy knows he is serious. A few weeks earlier Rodriguez and a bondsman named Marty picked up a fugitive for a bondsman named Frankie, saving him from the threat of losing $100,000. Frankie had promised them $50,000 for the job. But he isn't paying. Frankie is an agent for the bondsman Rodriguez is visiting.

Their conversation is pleasant enough. "It p-o'd Marty big time," Rodriguez says. "He's upset."

"I'll give Frankie a call," says the other bondsman, Frankie's boss, a man in late middle age with a face the color of cigar ash.

"All we want is the money. It's in the best interests of everybody. He has a bad reputation on the street. People don't trust him anymore."

"I'll give Frankie a call," the other bondsman repeats calmly, without expression.

Rodriguez leaves quickly; he has a lot of errands today. He isn't too worried about getting his money. Even if he doesn't, Frankie will pay anyway: combing state court files, Marty found an old $100,000 forfeiture on a bond Frankie wrote and never paid -- overlooked by the clerks, a not-uncommon occurrence. Now the county has been notified that Frankie owes $100,000. "We all get along, but you can't trust any of them [bondsmen]," Rodriguez says. "Everyone talks about being professional, this and that, but the bottom line is if they can beat you, they will. It's a sleazy business. You're dealing with the scum of the earth."

He gets a beep and pulls out his cellular phone to call his office. A client is coming by to pick up the collateral for a bond on a case that is now closed. Rodriguez heads to his bank to pick up the collateral, jewelry he stored in a safe-deposit box. He likes being out and about; he drove an ice cream truck before becoming a bondsman. This is better money and more excitement, even if his wife does hate it. Rodriguez hopes he can retire in fifteen or twenty years. Everyone knows him at the bank, where his Reeboks and green plaid shirt contrast with the business suits of the other customers. He and the teller make small talk in Spanish while he waits for the jewelry. A bank employee brings it out in a manila envelope. "It's not even really valuable jewelry," he muses. "But it means a lot to the family."

A relative newcomer in Miami terms, Rodriguez has been in the bonds business for five years, during which he's managed to build a solid clientele. He thinks it's stupid to worry about a bondsman displaying a business card on a car window; in fact, he used to have a card taped to the windshield of his well-worn green Honda (even the president of the bail bond association, Russ Walters, Jr., has a front license plate identifying him as a bondsman). Rodriguez tore the card off, he says, when Viola started having problems with the insurance department in the spring of 1992. Around the same time, Rodriguez had problems of his own: he and four other bondsmen were the targets of complaints, along with Viola, by the corrections officer Lorraine Cooper, though the allegations were different. The cases against Rodriguez and two of the bondsmen were dropped after preliminary investigations; two other cases remain open.

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.

Meanwhile, a group of Dade County Bail Bond Association officers met with Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher's chief of staff, Herb Clark, on August 7, 1992, in Tallahassee. "We wanted it cleaned up," says Don Sinclair, a former member of the board. "We wanted the hustling stopped." They also urged action on the Miami bail bond cases under investigation. Clark met again with the group of bondsmen after the Tallahassee meeting, when he was in South Florida following Hurricane Andrew.

Then on August 31, the Department of Insurance filed an administrative complaint against Viola, charging him with solicitation. "I was astounded," says attorney Levin, who immediately protested to Powell. "Even if [Viola] were guilty," Levin asserts, "this would be an incredible waste of time and money for an agency that has real problems to worry about. I really don't understand why they pursued this." Apart from the hours spent investigating and preparing the case -- over a year -- the state paid for a lawyer and an administrative judge to travel to Miami on two occasions for hearings on the matter, plus lodging, food and rental car expenses.

Richard Thornburg, the lawyer handling the case for the department of insurance, agrees that Viola's alleged crime was minor, "but it's still a violation and it should have been pursued." After the state's administrative judge, Linda Rigot, recommended that Viola's case be permanently dismissed, Thornburg filed what is called an exception, objecting to the recommendation and requesting a dismissal that would allow the case to be reopened at a later date. He argued that Rigot had not given him enough time to locate his missing witness and that the case could not be said to be definitively resolved. On July 19, Insurance Commissioner Gallagher agreed, and took the unusual step of overturning Rigot's recommendation. The case against Jim Viola remains open.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...