Inside Job

For years people have been alleging that Miami bail-bond king Jim Viola bribes county corrections officers. For years the FBI and the State Attorney's Office have been investigating. And for years nothing has happened.

Looking out his window, Albert Scaletti, Jr., watched as police officers surrounded his home. His heart pounding, Scaletti felt a wave of nausea rush over him. When one of the officers looked up and saw him at the window, he quickly slinked to the side, hoping to avoid being seen. But it was too late. By now the police were pounding on his front door. "Albert Scaletti, we know you're in there!" one of them yelled. "Open up! Don't make us kick in the door."

As the officers outside grew increasingly impatient, Scaletti and his girlfriend scrambled about the house. Finally Scaletti opened the front door. The officers told him they had a warrant for his arrest. The charge: organized fraud, a third-degree felony. Scaletti, a local bail bondsman with a sordid reputation, had taken part in a two-bit scam in which he joined the Police Benevolent Association, falsely claiming to be a law enforcement officer, in hopes of obtaining the PBA's discount on cellular-telephone service.

He was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a Miami-Dade Police cruiser. As he sat there his girlfriend, Noreen Ellis, also a bondsman and also indicted in the scheme, was led away in handcuffs. "Al, what have you gotten me into?" she screamed at him. "You'd better do something about this!"

One of the arresting officers, Tony Samper, noticed that Scaletti's face was turning ash gray. "I'm going to get sick," the 31-year-old Scaletti told Samper.

"You'd better not get sick in that officer's car," Samper answered.
"I'm going to throw up," Scaletti repeated.
Samper removed Scaletti from the car and read him his Miranda rights as the suspect tried to catch his breath. In the meantime a pair of Metro-Dade detectives from the department's public-corruption unit closed in around Scaletti. "I know what you want," Scaletti blurted. "You want me to give up Jim and Jenny."

He was right. That was exactly what the detectives wanted. Ten bail bondsmen had been indicted in the PBA cell-phone scheme, and it was no accident that Scaletti was the first person they picked up. Police considered him to be a low-life hustler who would likely rat on his friends to get himself out of a jam. With the application of appropriate pressure, investigators hoped, Scaletti would crack. Sure enough, within minutes of his arrest on December 19, 1997, he began to fall apart.

Coyly the detectives asked if Scaletti was referring to Jim Viola and Jenny Garcia, the people who ran the highly successful bail-bond company that employed Scaletti. According to a report later written by one of the investigators on the scene, Scaletti responded, "Yes, the deal going on at the jail."

For nearly three years local, state, and federal agents had been investigating allegations that Jim Viola had been offering bribes and kickbacks to county corrections officers to steer his way the most lucrative bonds.

Before Scaletti could say much more, he was hustled away to the Metro-Dade police substation in West Kendall. Over the next several hours, Scaletti met with different groups of investigators. One team from the Statewide Prosecutor's Office in Tallahassee interviewed him about the alleged cell-phone scheme. Another team from Miami-Dade's public-corruption unit talked with him about the jail. Additional detectives from Metro's internal affairs unit (typically summoned only when police officers are implicated in wrongdoing) were called in to have their own tete-a-tete.

When Scaletti emerged from these sessions, he told investigators he feared for his life and was afraid Viola might try to hurt him. "The Violas have connections," he said, according to the investigator's report, "and I am afraid of what will happen if they find out I cooperated."

"This guy was begging us to help him," says a law enforcement source familiar with Scaletti's arrest. "He was deathly afraid he was going to be killed. He kept saying, 'I can't go to that jail. If I go to that jail, they'll kill me.'"

Scaletti's cooperation and fearful plea prompted prosecutors overseeing the PBA case to take the unusual step of asking a judge to release the suspect on his own recognizance so he wouldn't have to spend time in jail.

What did Scaletti tell the officers about Jim Viola, Jenny Garcia, and the "deal going on at the jail"? That remains a mystery.

For his part Scaletti denies saying anything. A month later he filed a sworn statement claiming detectives conducted a "unilateral interview" with him and that he never said a word. After his arrest Scaletti resumed working for Viola, who continues to be one of the busiest bail bondsmen in the State of Florida.

Jim Viola and Jenny Garcia have never been charged with offering bribes or kickbacks to county corrections officers. Viola strenuously denies he has ever done anything illegal to generate business. (Garcia did not return phone calls seeking her comment.) Viola also claims the accusations made against him come from competitors resentful of his success. "People are jealous," he maintains. "When you are on top of the ladder, people want to knock you off."

Viola is right about two things: He's at the pinnacle of his profession, and a lot of people are trying to topple him.

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