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.

In 1997 that frustration led the Dade County Bail Bond Association to file a civil lawsuit against another of Viola's companies, Estrella Bail Bonds, claiming it had illegally solicited clients from the Pre-Trial Detention Center, known commonly as the main county jail. (Bondsmen are not allowed to solicit business in places where prisoners are held. If caught the Department of Insurance can suspend or revoke a bondsman's license.) Lawyers for the bail-bond association argued that because no other agency was willing to enforce the administrative statutes, the association had no choice but to assume that regulatory role on its own. This past month Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Paul Siegel dismissed the lawsuit, maintaining the association didn't have the authority to enforce the state statutes. The association is considering an appeal.

Sally Burt, bail-bond coordinator for the Department of Insurance, argues she's doing all she can to rein in rogue bondsmen. But manpower shortages, as well as bureaucratic problems unique to Miami-Dade County, make it extremely difficult. "We are kind of dead in the water when we try to get somebody down there to work with us on solving problems," Burt says from her office in Tallahassee. "There is no sheriff in Dade County. Every other county in the state, they have a sheriff who runs the jail. You don't. We deal with Metro-Dade Police for some things, the corrections department for others."

Further complicating matters, until this year Burt's budget didn't allow for investigators. The legislature this past year funded four investigator positions, and Burt has just filled three. They will now be expected to keep watch over the state's 1350 bail bondsmen, more than 300 of whom work in Miami-Dade County. "Our authority is over their licenses," Burt explains. "We are a regulatory agency. I think sometimes people think we are a law enforcement agency, and we're not." Allegations of criminal conduct, she notes, should be investigated by law enforcement.

The files and reports obtained by New Times show the criminal investigation of Viola was initiated in early 1995 when Ron Book, the attorney and lobbyist for the Dade County Bail Bond Association, contacted the State Attorney's Office to arrange a meeting between prosecutors and several bondsmen who had information about Viola. As a result, from February to May 1995, more than a half-dozen bondsmen, including a former Viola employee, met with investigators from the State Attorney's Office, Metro-Dade Police detectives, and FBI agents.

The bondsmen asserted that Viola had a virtual stranglehold on the local bail-bond industry, and claimed he used several tactics. First and foremost, they told investigators, he was offering monetary kickbacks to key corrections officers in the booking areas of both the main jail (located at 1321 NW Thirteenth St.) and the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Facility (7000 NW 41st St.). These officers are the first members of the jail staff to have contact with a newly arrested prisoner. At this stage of the intake process the booking officer knows the charge against the individual and the dollar amount of the bond for that charge. Using the county computer system, the officer could also gain immediate access to county property records to determine if the prisoner owns his own home, which would be used as collateral for a bond, thus making the prisoner a highly desirable candidate for any bail-bond company.

According to the investigative reports, the bondsmen alleged that the corrections officer would then call Viola or one of his employees and pass along the information. The officer would provide Viola with the inmate's name and jail identification number, in addition to the name of a spouse or family member. All this would take place while the prisoners were still being processed, often before they could make a phone call to inform friends or relatives they'd been arrested, and almost always before the information was released to the public, especially to competing bondsmen. Viola would then either contact the family or go directly to the jail to meet with the prisoner and pitch his services.

The kickback, or finder's fee, for the corrections officer who secretly referred the case to Viola would be one and one-half percent of the total bond. On a $10,000 bond, for example, Viola's firm would collect from the prisoner the standard fee of ten percent, or $1000, and from that would pay the officer an illegal kickback of $150.

In addition to booking officers, other corrections department employees with access to the county's computer system were enlisted to gather information on newly arrived jail inmates, according to the investigators' reports.

The bondsmen also told investigators that another practice commonly employed by Viola was simpler: Corrections officers or even other inmates would hand new prisoners a slip of paper with Viola's telephone number written on it. One of the bondsmen who spoke with investigators, and who used to work for Viola, also told New Times that though this method was low-tech compared with the use of computer systems, it was extremely effective.

A new prisoner would be placed in a large cellblock with a group of other prisoners, one of whom was the "houseman," the unofficial boss of that area. "Usually it was the biggest, meanest guy in there," the former Viola employee says. "And if you want to use the phone, you have to ask him." Sometimes, he adds, the houseman would simply dial Viola's office and then hand the phone to the new prisoner and say, "This is your bondsman. Talk to him."

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