For more than a year bail-bond agents throughout Miami-Dade County have watched their business plummet. Some bondsmen estimate that their client volume has dropped as much as 70 percent.
"This has paralyzed many people's business," says Nathaniel Sala-Suarez of Coconut Grove Bail Bonds. Adds Jack Benveniste, President of All Dade Bail Bonds, Inc.: "A lot of people are barely holding on."
It wasn't as if the need had disappeared -- this is Miami after all. Police were still arresting people, and those people still wanted to bond out of jail while their cases wormed their way through the court system.
The problem was that the business was all going to companies controlled by one man, the county's most notorious bail bondsman, James Viola (and business associate Jenny Garcia). Viola's agents weren't persuading hundreds of new defendants to use their services over their competitors. His people were simply getting to the defendants, or their families, first. They called families so far ahead of the competition it was almost as if they were getting the arrest information before it was made public. (Viola is the bondsman other bondsmen love to hate. In the mid-Nineties a task force of law-enforcement agencies undertook a protracted investigation into allegations he bribed jail guards to coerce defendants into using his bail businesses. No one was ever charged.)
The problem got so bad that roughly six months ago Ed Sheppard, an unofficial spokesman for reform-minded bondsmen, came to me in frustration. He had met with various officials -- from the clerk of the court to state regulators -- and nobody seemed able to do anything. "They've got to be breaking into the court's computer system," he told me at the time. "I just can't prove it."
On December 22 proof came barreling Sheppard's way in the form of a manically loquacious and very, very angry 51-year-old bail-bond agent named Silvia Sanchez.
Sanchez called Sheppard and blurted out that Viola was indeed up to something. More than that, she was the one who actually taught Viola how to extract from the court system's Website information on defendants long before it became public. She could get it before the defendant's fingerprints had been run through a law-enforcement check. She could even get information before police had served a defendant with an arrest warrant -- a scary breach of security for police because it meant a defendant could be forewarned of his imminent arrest.
Sanchez said she taught all this to Viola, who was her boss, and he immediately set up several "telemarketers" to sit in front of computers and exploit that information all day and all night.
"We only found out about [Website access] about a year ago," Sanchez says during a rambling telephone interview. "Jim was going downhill, bankruptcy. Then we found out how to get the names. I wasn't the first to get it. A computer-software person cracked it on the Internet. She explained a whole lot to me about computers and cookies. I was the one who figured out how to get around the PID [fingerprint check] delay. That can take seven hours. You can lose a bond in seven hours! I am loyal, honest, open, and forthright, and I went to Jim and Jenny with this because I thought they'd take care of me and the computer person."
And what thanks did she get? None. In fact she called Sheppard on Wednesday, December 22, because that was the day Viola hosted his company's Christmas luncheon -- and she hadn't been invited.
Sanchez: "'I show you how to get the names! My mother -- my eighty ... two ... year ... old mother -- bakes you a four-layer chocolate cake for your birthday! And you don't have the decency, the manners, the, the, the -- to invite me to your office Christmas lunch?!' So I said, 'I'm going to show you, motherfucker!' And I fucked him good!"
Viola: "You're believing a crazy woman. Public information is public information. I don't get anything before it's public. I don't know anything about this."
Sheppard wasted no time arranging for Sanchez to meet him at the office of Diane Pattavina, chief of the clerk of the court's felony division, on the ninth floor of the Richard E. Gerstein Criminal Justice Building. Sanchez promptly showed Pattavina and a gaggle of computer technicians exactly how to get into confidential areas of the system by altering the string of parameters in the address bar, or URL, of the clerk of the court's Website (www.miami-dadeclerk.com/dadecoc/). The technicians immediately set about closing the loophole. By noon the next day access had been shut off.
Now the question is this: Did Sanchez and Viola do anything illegal?
Pattavina refers all questions to Miami-Dade County Clerk of the Court Harvey Ruvin. "Any time there's a pending investigation we're very limited in what we can comment about," Ruvin hedges. "But we acted immediately. The problem that was brought to our attention was resolved in less than 24 hours."
It's unclear what kind of investigation is taking place, though. Three weeks after the courts became aware of the problem, no law-enforcement officials had contacted Sanchez.
The person charged with fixing the computer problem was Tom James, chief information officer for the clerk of the court. "The information they were getting was from our public-access site," says James, "and essentially it is public information. That's why I don't know whether this would be considered a crime."
It would be a criminal violation if Viola had cracked an encrypted code, according to one legal analysis. But a source who knows Viola's operations intimately says Viola checked with an attorney before setting up his operation. "It wasn't considered hacking," the source says. "It was just taking advantage of a glitch in their system."
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As for Viola's ability to view information on unserved arrest warrants, James says he's heard about it but doesn't know how Viola could have obtained that kind of access. "We don't really carry warrant information in our system, so I don't understand how they would get that," he notes. It's unclear if such access would be considered a crime.
But the source with knowledge of Viola's operations corroborates Sanchez's claim. "They are able to get warrants before they are even served," says the source, who viewed a computer screen displaying that information. "It didn't show you it was a warrant, it just showed you it was a defendant who was booked with a charge, but there was no jail number, no case number. They were not in jail yet. That's how everybody figured out it was a warrant. That info meant it was a warrant about to be served."
Yet Ruvin's office, after learning from Sanchez that warrant information could be viewed, never alerted the Miami-Dade Police Department, which delivers all warrants within the county. "We haven't been notified of any kind of breach in security that I'm aware of," says Miami-Dade Police Division Chief Russell Fisher, who is in charge of the warrants bureau.
If court officials believe their system is safe from invasive bail agents, they need to talk to Sanchez again. "It took me forever, forever to figure it out, but on December 25 I cracked the code again," she boasts before launching into a detailed description of what to type where. This time, though, the first call she made was to the clerk's office.