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.

New Times has obtained files and reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office describing the four-year investigation of Viola and one of his companies, A-Alternative Release Bail Bond Program. The allegations contained in those reports are disturbing: Several corrections officers, identified by name, are alleged to have accepted bribes and kickbacks from Viola in exchange for routinely and illegally providing him with confidential information about certain jail inmates, information that boosts his business. The illegal operation may have been supported by a member of the senior command staff at the county's Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, which runs Miami-Dade's system of jails and detention centers. Viola is also alleged to have recruited corrections officers to his operation by arranging wild sex parties; one woman claims she was offered money by Scaletti and Viola to befriend specific corrections officers and have sex with them.

"I don't have any idea about any investigation going on," Viola says, "and I'm not worried about any investigation." He is unconcerned, he repeats, because he's done nothing wrong.

Even if that weren't true, he'd have little to worry about. The material reviewed by New Times depicts an investigation that has languished for years. Many of the allegations against Viola are without corroboration, largely because investigators failed to look for any. The files are replete with leads never pursued and opportunities squandered.

Part of that carelessness may have arisen from the very nature of the bail-bond business, an enterprise historically rife with shady characters. Local bondsmen think the State Attorney's Office has conducted the Viola investigation halfheartedly because of a widely held belief that trying to clean up an inherently sleazy industry is an exercise in futility.

Critics of the way this investigation was handled, however, note that bail bondsmen are part of the judicial system, and are therefore instruments of the courts in the same way judges, attorneys, prosecutors, and probation officers are. Their services are essential to the due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. To allow any segment of the judicial system to become corrupted, critics say, contaminates its overall integrity.

A new arrival to jail who is pressured, even threatened, by a corrections officer to hire a particular bail bondsman understandably might suspect that each subsequent step in his journey through the legal system is equally crooked. Just as alarming is the specter of corrections officers, sworn to perform their duties honestly, violating the public trust and further tarnishing Miami-Dade County's sullied image.

In the opinion of some bondsmen, 38-year-old Jim Viola has long been a symbol of what's wrong with the local bail-bond industry. A transplant from New Jersey, he came to Miami in the late Eighties to open a nightclub. After it closed he embarked on a career as a bondsman. New Times first profiled Viola more than six years ago ("Jail Bait," August 17, 1993), and even then he was fighting accusations he was illegally hustling clients at the county jail.

His business has grown significantly since then. Even Viola's critics acknowledge he works long hours and has devoted himself to building his enterprise. At the same time, however, they claim it is Viola's single-minded pursuit of profit that has led him to allegedly break the law.

"I'm frustrated nothing has been done about him," says Sal Rivas, a past president of the Dade County Bail Bond Association. "We gathered evidence, we presented it to the State Attorney's Office, and they didn't do a thing. We provided them names of people they should interview, and they never did anything with it. I sent them sworn statements and nothing happened. After a while, I just gave up.

"Every other bondsman in the area is getting the message that there is no enforcement and they should just go ahead and break the rules," Rivas adds. "That's what I'm hearing from a lot of bondsmen."

Ed Sheppard, another veteran bondsman, says he has tried on several occasions to alert authorities to the seriousness of the allegations against Viola. "We've talked to the jail about it, and they said they would look into it," he recalls. "But nothing ever happened. I've talked to various law enforcement officials, and they say it's too hard for them to get anyone undercover inside the jail."

Several years ago, he recalls, he appeared before the Dade County Commission and reported that corrections officers were taking bribes and steering business to certain bail bondsmen. "I just went down there and made a presentation to the full commission," he says. "And all the commissioners seemed very concerned by what I was saying. And they assured me someone from the police department would contact me. That time I really thought I'd hear back from somebody. I thought at the very least somebody from the police department would call me and say, 'What more can you tell us? What evidence do you have?' But nobody ever called."

Sheppard and Rivas say they also have asked for help from the state Department of Insurance, which regulates the bail-bond industry. "We can't seem to get them to do any enforcement with regard to any of the state statutes governing bail bondsmen," Sheppard complains. "We're just the ugly stepchild of the insurance industry."

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