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.

The woman told the FBI agent Scaletti tried to have her fee raised to $350, "but Viola became upset and began to argue with Scaletti." Ultimately, the woman said, she rejected Scaletti's attempts to prostitute her. After failing to show up for three separate rendezvous with corrections officers, she said she never again heard from either Viola or Scaletti.

Viola denied he offered a woman money to have sex with corrections officers. "It's absurd," he said. "It's just absurd."

"Whatever you've dug up, they've given you bad information," Scaletti said during a brief telephone conversation. Scaletti agreed to a follow-up interview, but did not return phone calls to arrange a meeting.

The corrections officer mentioned most often in the reports reviewed by New Times is Becky Luengas, who in 1997 was promoted by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the rank of sergeant. Bryars and Hale were told repeatedly that Viola's main source of information inside the jail was Luengas, who is the girlfriend of Jenny Garcia. Property records show that Luengas and Garcia own a home together in South Miami-Dade. (Through a jail spokeswoman, Luengas declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Luengas has been with the corrections department since 1987 and earns an annual salary of $52,343. Her most recent employee evaluation praises her work ethic and describes her as an "outstanding" officer. "Sgt. Luengas should make a concerted effort to study for the lieutenant's exam so that she can assume greater authority and responsibility and thereby be a greater asset to the department," her review concludes.

The bondsmen who met with Bryars and Hale said she is just as valuable an asset to Viola. As a supervisor Luengas has access to the department's computer system and can easily relay information on new prisoners. A confidential witness who once worked as a bondsman for Viola told the two investigators he had "firsthand knowledge that Viola pays Metro-Dade Corrections Officer Becky Luengas for information in order for Viola to receive exclusive bail-bond business from the jail," according to one of the investigative reports obtained by New Times. "Viola pays Luengas 1.5 points of every bond that is written from the jail, which comes from the bondsman's commission. This money is usually paid to Luengas through her live-in girlfriend, Jenny Garcia, who is employed by Viola." According to the report, Viola would write the letter B in the corner of the paychecks made out to Garcia, but that were really intended for Becky Luengas.

New Times interviewed the confidential witness quoted in the report and is protecting his identity at the request of the State Attorney's Office. "I knew this kind of stuff happened, but the first time you see it, it was like, wow," the former Viola employee says. "And they were so open about it. I would be at the jail on Saturday morning and Jenny would be on the pay phone talking to Becky, and she would be writing name after name after name of people we should bond out."

The witness claims Viola expected Luengas always to be on the lookout for good bonds, and if she missed one he would take it out on Garcia. "If he saw someone at the jail writing a big bond, he would get furious with Jenny," he recalls. "He would yell, 'Becky's falling asleep! She should have called us on this bond. She's fucking up.'"

One time, he remembers, he was contacted by a family who wanted to get a relative out of jail. This contact came to him completely independent of Luengas. The bond was $7500. In order to post that amount, the family had to provide collateral for the entire amount and pay the bond company a fee of $750. As the person who found the client, the bondsman says he was entitled to a commission of "three points," or $225, of the $750 the bond company received in fees.

Instead, he says, he received a phone call at home from Jenny Garcia a few hours after removing the prisoner from jail. "That was Becky's bond," he recalls Garcia saying. "I had that name on my list from Becky." According to the confidential witness, Garcia was claiming that Luengas had passed along to Garcia the name of the prisoner, and even though he may have gotten the prisoner out first, Luengas still expected her 1.5 point fee for the referral. They argued, and he hung up on her. A short time later, Viola allegedly called and told him he would have to give up half his commission. "I paid it," he says. "I had no choice."

In 1995 this confidential witness was able to provide investigators with unique insight into Viola's business practices. But he had even more to offer. Viola had trusted him, and he had left Viola's operation on relatively good terms. Recognizing his value, the FBI sought to have him work for Viola again, only this time he would be working undercover, gathering incriminating information about Viola and the corrections officers who abetted him.

Agent Bryars told the man he would be provided with a new apartment and a boat -- complete with hidden microphones and cameras -- where he would be able to entertain the targets of the investigation and, with luck, get them talking.

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