By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
Looking out his window, Albert Scaletti, Jr., watched as police officers surrounded his home. His heart pounding, Scaletti felt a wave of nausea rush over him. When one of the officers looked up and saw him at the window, he quickly slinked to the side, hoping to avoid being seen. But it was too late. By now the police were pounding on his front door. "Albert Scaletti, we know you're in there!" one of them yelled. "Open up! Don't make us kick in the door."
As the officers outside grew increasingly impatient, Scaletti and his girlfriend scrambled about the house. Finally Scaletti opened the front door. The officers told him they had a warrant for his arrest. The charge: organized fraud, a third-degree felony. Scaletti, a local bail bondsman with a sordid reputation, had taken part in a two-bit scam in which he joined the Police Benevolent Association, falsely claiming to be a law enforcement officer, in hopes of obtaining the PBA's discount on cellular-telephone service.
He was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a Miami-Dade Police cruiser. As he sat there his girlfriend, Noreen Ellis, also a bondsman and also indicted in the scheme, was led away in handcuffs. "Al, what have you gotten me into?" she screamed at him. "You'd better do something about this!"
One of the arresting officers, Tony Samper, noticed that Scaletti's face was turning ash gray. "I'm going to get sick," the 31-year-old Scaletti told Samper.
"You'd better not get sick in that officer's car," Samper answered.
"I'm going to throw up," Scaletti repeated.
Samper removed Scaletti from the car and read him his Miranda rights as the suspect tried to catch his breath. In the meantime a pair of Metro-Dade detectives from the department's public-corruption unit closed in around Scaletti. "I know what you want," Scaletti blurted. "You want me to give up Jim and Jenny."
He was right. That was exactly what the detectives wanted. Ten bail bondsmen had been indicted in the PBA cell-phone scheme, and it was no accident that Scaletti was the first person they picked up. Police considered him to be a low-life hustler who would likely rat on his friends to get himself out of a jam. With the application of appropriate pressure, investigators hoped, Scaletti would crack. Sure enough, within minutes of his arrest on December 19, 1997, he began to fall apart.
Coyly the detectives asked if Scaletti was referring to Jim Viola and Jenny Garcia, the people who ran the highly successful bail-bond company that employed Scaletti. According to a report later written by one of the investigators on the scene, Scaletti responded, "Yes, the deal going on at the jail."
For nearly three years local, state, and federal agents had been investigating allegations that Jim Viola had been offering bribes and kickbacks to county corrections officers to steer his way the most lucrative bonds.
Before Scaletti could say much more, he was hustled away to the Metro-Dade police substation in West Kendall. Over the next several hours, Scaletti met with different groups of investigators. One team from the Statewide Prosecutor's Office in Tallahassee interviewed him about the alleged cell-phone scheme. Another team from Miami-Dade's public-corruption unit talked with him about the jail. Additional detectives from Metro's internal affairs unit (typically summoned only when police officers are implicated in wrongdoing) were called in to have their own tete-a-tete.
When Scaletti emerged from these sessions, he told investigators he feared for his life and was afraid Viola might try to hurt him. "The Violas have connections," he said, according to the investigator's report, "and I am afraid of what will happen if they find out I cooperated."
"This guy was begging us to help him," says a law enforcement source familiar with Scaletti's arrest. "He was deathly afraid he was going to be killed. He kept saying, 'I can't go to that jail. If I go to that jail, they'll kill me.'"
Scaletti's cooperation and fearful plea prompted prosecutors overseeing the PBA case to take the unusual step of asking a judge to release the suspect on his own recognizance so he wouldn't have to spend time in jail.
What did Scaletti tell the officers about Jim Viola, Jenny Garcia, and the "deal going on at the jail"? That remains a mystery.
For his part Scaletti denies saying anything. A month later he filed a sworn statement claiming detectives conducted a "unilateral interview" with him and that he never said a word. After his arrest Scaletti resumed working for Viola, who continues to be one of the busiest bail bondsmen in the State of Florida.
Jim Viola and Jenny Garcia have never been charged with offering bribes or kickbacks to county corrections officers. Viola strenuously denies he has ever done anything illegal to generate business. (Garcia did not return phone calls seeking her comment.) Viola also claims the accusations made against him come from competitors resentful of his success. "People are jealous," he maintains. "When you are on top of the ladder, people want to knock you off."
Viola is right about two things: He's at the pinnacle of his profession, and a lot of people are trying to topple him.
New Times has obtained files and reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office describing the four-year investigation of Viola and one of his companies, A-Alternative Release Bail Bond Program. The allegations contained in those reports are disturbing: Several corrections officers, identified by name, are alleged to have accepted bribes and kickbacks from Viola in exchange for routinely and illegally providing him with confidential information about certain jail inmates, information that boosts his business. The illegal operation may have been supported by a member of the senior command staff at the county's Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, which runs Miami-Dade's system of jails and detention centers. Viola is also alleged to have recruited corrections officers to his operation by arranging wild sex parties; one woman claims she was offered money by Scaletti and Viola to befriend specific corrections officers and have sex with them.
"I don't have any idea about any investigation going on," Viola says, "and I'm not worried about any investigation." He is unconcerned, he repeats, because he's done nothing wrong.
Even if that weren't true, he'd have little to worry about. The material reviewed by New Times depicts an investigation that has languished for years. Many of the allegations against Viola are without corroboration, largely because investigators failed to look for any. The files are replete with leads never pursued and opportunities squandered.
Part of that carelessness may have arisen from the very nature of the bail-bond business, an enterprise historically rife with shady characters. Local bondsmen think the State Attorney's Office has conducted the Viola investigation halfheartedly because of a widely held belief that trying to clean up an inherently sleazy industry is an exercise in futility.
Critics of the way this investigation was handled, however, note that bail bondsmen are part of the judicial system, and are therefore instruments of the courts in the same way judges, attorneys, prosecutors, and probation officers are. Their services are essential to the due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. To allow any segment of the judicial system to become corrupted, critics say, contaminates its overall integrity.
A new arrival to jail who is pressured, even threatened, by a corrections officer to hire a particular bail bondsman understandably might suspect that each subsequent step in his journey through the legal system is equally crooked. Just as alarming is the specter of corrections officers, sworn to perform their duties honestly, violating the public trust and further tarnishing Miami-Dade County's sullied image.
In the opinion of some bondsmen, 38-year-old Jim Viola has long been a symbol of what's wrong with the local bail-bond industry. A transplant from New Jersey, he came to Miami in the late Eighties to open a nightclub. After it closed he embarked on a career as a bondsman. New Times first profiled Viola more than six years ago ("Jail Bait," August 17, 1993), and even then he was fighting accusations he was illegally hustling clients at the county jail.
His business has grown significantly since then. Even Viola's critics acknowledge he works long hours and has devoted himself to building his enterprise. At the same time, however, they claim it is Viola's single-minded pursuit of profit that has led him to allegedly break the law.
"I'm frustrated nothing has been done about him," says Sal Rivas, a past president of the Dade County Bail Bond Association. "We gathered evidence, we presented it to the State Attorney's Office, and they didn't do a thing. We provided them names of people they should interview, and they never did anything with it. I sent them sworn statements and nothing happened. After a while, I just gave up.
"Every other bondsman in the area is getting the message that there is no enforcement and they should just go ahead and break the rules," Rivas adds. "That's what I'm hearing from a lot of bondsmen."
Ed Sheppard, another veteran bondsman, says he has tried on several occasions to alert authorities to the seriousness of the allegations against Viola. "We've talked to the jail about it, and they said they would look into it," he recalls. "But nothing ever happened. I've talked to various law enforcement officials, and they say it's too hard for them to get anyone undercover inside the jail."
Several years ago, he recalls, he appeared before the Dade County Commission and reported that corrections officers were taking bribes and steering business to certain bail bondsmen. "I just went down there and made a presentation to the full commission," he says. "And all the commissioners seemed very concerned by what I was saying. And they assured me someone from the police department would contact me. That time I really thought I'd hear back from somebody. I thought at the very least somebody from the police department would call me and say, 'What more can you tell us? What evidence do you have?' But nobody ever called."
Sheppard and Rivas say they also have asked for help from the state Department of Insurance, which regulates the bail-bond industry. "We can't seem to get them to do any enforcement with regard to any of the state statutes governing bail bondsmen," Sheppard complains. "We're just the ugly stepchild of the insurance industry."
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."
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."
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.
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.
"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."
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."
Furthermore the county's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is problematic. Although Rosen will not comment on the subject, individuals who've been involved in the Viola investigation say they have not been able to solicit help from the department's internal affairs unit because they do not trust it.
Rosen says he still considers the investigation of Viola and his business to be an open and ongoing affair. "We are going to actively look at any new leads that are brought to us," he says.
So far the State Attorney's Office has refused to make what prosecutors call a "historical case" based on the testimony of former employees and others regarding illegal acts that allegedly occurred in the past. Prosecutors instead desire a sting. They want videotape of officers taking money, or at the very least agreeing to take money. For that to happen, they need someone to step forward and help them.
After four years, they are still waiting.