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.

What is a person supposed to do at that point? the former Viola employee asks. Tell the houseman no? So the prisoner takes the phone, and because he's interested in being released as quickly as possible, he authorizes Viola to post his bond. All of this, the former employee says, takes place under the permissive view of corrections officers.

According to the reports obtained by New Times, investigators were told by local bondsmen in 1995 that for every successful Viola bond a houseman arranged, he would receive a one percent commission. Initially those commissions were deposited in the housemen's commissary accounts, which are used to buy cigarettes and other items. But those accounts grew suspiciously large, so Viola allegedly passed along the money to the housemen's families.

If the bondsmen who told investigators about these arrangements seemed remarkably knowledgeable, it's likely because they themselves once used housemen. Privately several local bondsmen confirm that the practice was common until a few years ago. But one bondsman says Viola upset the fragile jailhouse balance by using his contacts with corrections officers to have competing housemen transferred from the main jail. "Jimmy's greedy," the bondsman says. "Jimmy doesn't know how to share."

In 1995 the two people most responsible for conducting the probe of Jim Viola were FBI agent Keith Bryars and Norman Hale, an investigator with the State Attorney's Office. Almost immediately Bryars and Hale found evidence supporting some of the allegations made by the bondsmen. In June of that year, they interviewed Frank Cerione, who had spent several hours in the main jail the previous month. He had been arrested by Miami Shores police after arguing with a woman over a parking space at a supermarket.

According to an FBI report obtained by New Times, Cerione told Bryars and Hale that while he was being photographed and fingerprinted at the jail, he was approached by a corrections officer who claimed to have the phone number of a man who could bond him out. "The corrections officer tried to give Cerione the telephone number," the report states, but Cerione refused, saying he had already made arrangements with another bondsman.

"Later, as Cerione was waiting in a holding cell, this same officer told Cerione that if he had called his bail bondsman, he could have been out by now," the FBI report continues. "The officer then gave Cerione a telephone number. Cerione states the corrections officer was very persistent and tried to push his bail bondsman three or four times. Cerione said he was persistent to the point where he acted upset that Cerione did not call the bail bondsman.

"Cerione advised there was another corrections officer who was doing the same thing," the report states. "This officer also gave Cerione a slip of paper with a number on it." Cerione said he also saw the two officers approach another inmate and that they "were pushing this inmate to call the bail bondsman."

Cerione held on to the pieces of paper and gave them to Bryars and Hale. The name "Jim" was handwritten on one of the slips of paper, according to the report; the phone number of Viola's bail-bond company was written on both.

Cerione told the investigators he could identify the two corrections officers if he saw them again. For some reason, though, he was never shown photographs of the officers working at the jail the day he was arrested. "I never heard from [Bryars and Hale] after that," Cerione says today. "They never followed up on it. I don't know what they did with my information."

Cerione's was not an isolated case. Several bondsmen say they provided the State Attorney's Office with the names of individuals who, like Cerione, allegedly were approached on behalf of Viola by either corrections officers or inmates. Moreover earlier this year prosecutors learned that a former prisoner by the name of George Hackett had been given Viola's phone number while in jail in December 1988. A houseman nicknamed "Smokey" provided the number. (See sidebar page 34.)

In 1995 Bryars and Hale were told by the bondsmen that, besides offering kickbacks, Viola allegedly used women to entice corrections officers. The reports obtained by New Times quote a confidential informant who claimed an associate of Viola has "hosted parties where other corrections officers and Metro-Dade Police officers were present. These parties are basically 'sex parties' and contribute to the corruption that is ongoing at A-Alternative." The ultimate goal of these parties, the informant explained, was to recruit new officers to Viola's operation.

In March 1996 an FBI agent interviewed a woman who echoed the allegation that Viola used sex to recruit corrections officers. According to an FBI report dated March 11, 1996, the woman told the agent she had been "solicited by Albert Scaletti, employee of James Viola, doing business as A-Alternative Bail Bonds, Miami, Florida, to date and 'sleep' with Metro-Dade Corrections Officers." The woman claimed Scaletti knew she was having financial problems, offered her drugs, and "suggested she could earn $250 for dating" the officers.

"Both Scaletti and Viola explained that she would meet with another employee ... at their business office," the FBI report states. "... From there they would go out to local establishments where they would meet with Metro-Dade Corrections Officers." The woman said she was nervous but "Scaletti assured her that nobody would hurt her and even coached her. He knew she was desperate and told her he wanted to help her."

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