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 witness knew this would be an extremely risky proposition. He realized that if the investigation led to criminal charges against Viola and others, he would be required to testify in court. And once it was known he had worked as an undercover operative for the FBI, his career as a bondsman would be finished: No criminal defense attorney would ever trust him again. In addition he had serious concerns about his physical safety.

"At one point they started talking to me about the witness-protection program when this was all over," he says. That was not an appealing prospect. He claims Bryars and Hale then suggested that the U.S. Justice Department could work out a lump-sum payment for him, and that he could use the money to disappear on his own, without having the government decide where he would live. "That's when they mentioned $100,000," the witness recalls. "That was their number, not mine." They told him to expect to work in Viola's organization for at least six months building cases. He agreed.

On July 26, 1995, he met with Bryars and Hale in the Latin American Cafe at Bayside Marketplace to review details of their agreement and to sign a formal contract. "They put the contract down in front of me and tell me to sign it," he remembers. "And I said, 'Hold on a minute, where's the money?'"

A copy of the proposed contract obtained by New Times states: "The FBI will compensate the [confidential witness] for his time expended in furtherance of this investigation...." The contract clearly states that the purpose of the investigation was to examine allegations that corrections officers were receiving bribes and kickbacks, and it identifies the company the confidential witness was to penetrate as Viola's A-Alternative Release Bail Bond Programs. The contract, however, does not state an amount of money the undercover operative was to be paid.

"They tell me that they can't put the number in there, that they can only give it to me verbally and that I'll have to trust them," he recounts. "And I'm thinking, 'Are you crazy?' Finally it came down to the fact that I was not going to do it if they did not put the money in the contract."

The two sides were at an impasse. Worse for Bryars was the fact that he had no leverage with the CW, as they began referring to him. Typically FBI agents work with criminals who hope to mitigate their punishment by cooperating. Such individuals are vulnerable to intimidation. If they want to stay out of jail, they have no choice but to do what they are told.

Unbeknown to the CW, Bryars had actually attempted to gain leverage against him by setting up a sting operation. On April 26, 1995, the FBI wired the office of a Miami bondsman and arranged for him to meet with the CW. While Bryars hid in the next room, the bondsman told the CW he was tired of watching Viola steal all the business at the jail and wanted to know if the CW was willing to help him set up their own illegal ring of corrections officers and housemen.

The bondsman claimed he was willing to bribe senior corrections commanders in order to knock Viola's organization out of the jail and clear the way for them to take over. "For years I've tried to run a clean ship and do everything the way it's supposed to be done," the bondsman said, according to a copy of the tape-recording made by the FBI. "But I'm at the point now where enough is enough."

The bondsman then claimed he'd heard a rumor that the CW had tried to set up his own organization. "Somebody told me that you tried to do the same type of thing but weren't too successful," he said.

"Who told you that?" the CW shot back.
"To be honest with you, I don't remember," the bondsman said, quickly retreating from the subject.

He asked the CW a series of questions about Viola's operation, and the CW proceeded to relate everything he had already told investigators. But then he offered his opinion. He told the bondsman he shouldn't lower himself to Viola's level. "I don't think you want to go there," the CW warned him.

"Why?"
"It gets to a point where you are going to want to write more bonds," he said, "and then you are going to be writing all of the bonds and then all of these other bondsmen are going to be looking at you like they look at Viola."

"I'm at the point where I don't care any longer."
"But you've been in the business a long time," the CW said, imploring him not to risk his reputation over such a scheme.

The bondsman responded that one of the reasons he was willing to take a chance was that nobody in law enforcement cared. "Nobody is going to do anything," he said.

The CW said he was aware of that as well.
If Bryars had hoped to lure the CW into implicating himself in a bribery conspiracy, he failed. "They wanted to get me dirty," the CW says today, "so they could force me to work undercover for them. They wanted to take that tape and shove it up my ass."

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