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 CW only recently learned of the 1995 tape-recording while reviewing material obtained by New Times. "It pisses me off," he says. "It really pisses me off. Once Bryars and [SAO investigator] Norm Hale got me, they thought they could put me in [Viola's operation], and then they wouldn't have to do any real work. I'd do it all for them."

In late 1995 negotiations between the CW and investigators came to a halt, and with that the FBI and the State Attorney's Office lost the best chance they had of infiltrating Viola's business.

The FBI will not comment on the Viola investigation, but speaking more generally FBI spokesman Mike Fabregas says it is against bureau policy to place a specific dollar amount in any agreement with a confidential witness. Prosecutors with the State Attorney's Office say they regret they couldn't finalize a deal with the CW. They deny he was ever promised $100,000, and they claim that figure was given to the CW as a hypothetical number, not a firm offer. Says Joe Centorino, head of the public corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office: "One hundred thousand dollars was really out of the question."

In 1996 investigator Norman Hale wrote a memo to his superiors at the State Attorney's Office arguing the Viola investigation should be closed. He claimed that the confidential witness's refusal to work undercover doomed any chance they had of bringing charges against Viola. Hale also lashed out at Miami's bondsmen, asserting that they should have done more to help the investigation. One bondsman who read the memo says Hale was trying to cover his own sloppy work on the case by pointing a finger at others. Prosecutors overseeing the investigation rejected Hale's assessment and ordered that the investigation remain open, but it's clear any enthusiasm investigators may have had for the probe was now gone.

The next opportunity to find a source within Viola's organization came with the December 1997 arrest of Albert Scaletti in the Police Benevolent Association cell-phone scheme. That case began quietly enough. A secretary at the statewide office of the PBA contacted the Department of Insurance concerning a dozen applications she had received from individuals claiming to be "surety agents" for the department.

The Tallahassee investigator who fielded the call was with the insurance department's arson squad, and though normally a state fire marshal wouldn't handle such matters, this particular investigator, Tony Samper, decided to pursue it. His inquiries revealed the motive behind applying for PBA membership was to benefit from the organization's discount on cell-phone service. He also quickly discovered that nearly all the suspects who applied either worked for Jim Viola or were Viola family members.

Because those who applied for PBA membership worked as bail bondsmen in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, Samper presented the case to the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor, which is responsible for handling criminal cases that spread over multiple counties. The prosecutor who initially reviewed the case in the fall of 1995 was Ramon de la Cabada, who was also in touch with the state and federal agents investigating Viola. In 1996 a new prosecutor, Jim Varnado, took over the case.

After Scaletti, Viola, and the other defendants in the PBA case were arrested and prosecutors began preparing for trial, something strange occurred. Viola contacted Ramon de la Cabada and offered him a job. The bondsman had just created a new industry group, the South Florida Bail Coordinators Association, and wanted de la Cabada to come aboard as its legal counsel and lobbyist.

Today de la Cabada says it was not improper for a defendant in a criminal case to offer a job to a prosecutor who had been involved in that case. At the time Viola contacted him, he points out, the case had been transferred to another prosecutor. Furthermore he waited until the criminal case was resolved before accepting Viola's offer.

In June of this past year, a plea bargain resulted in the felony fraud charges being reduced to a misdemeanor. Viola pleaded no contest to a charge of "unlawful use of a badge or emblem." (The reduced charge related to Viola's use of a PBA emblem on his car's license plate.) The judge withheld final adjudication, and in return Viola agreed to pay for the cost of the investigation, $8500. The other defendants reached similar agreements. "I was totally innocent," Viola says, adding that he entered a plea in the case only to put the matter behind him.

Ramon de la Cabada says he never thought the PBA case was strong -- even when he was prosecuting it. And he declares, just as confidently, that nothing will come from the investigation of Viola by the FBI and the State Attorney's Office. "It's very easy to say Jim Viola and his brothers are a bunch of thugs and they solicit clients," de la Cabada charges. "It's easy to say Jenny Garcia is roommates with Becky Luengas and Jim gets business that way. It's easy to sling mud. What's hard is proving it, because there is nothing there."

Prosecutors acknowledge they are frustrated that the Viola investigation hasn't yielded more results. But they argue that the bail-bond world is a difficult one to infiltrate, and infiltration, they believe, is necessary. "In order to make a case like this one for bribery," Assistant State Attorney Howard Rosen says, "we would need to show the cash flowing back to the corrections officers. And the nature of the beast is a very closed type of society, both at the jail and within the bond industry." The jail itself presents major problems, Rosen adds: "The jail is not a conducive place to send in someone undercover."

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