By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Do bail bond companies in Dade County ever pay up when the arrestees they have bonded skip town? In last week’s edition, the Sentinel reported that the answer appeared to be no: The two county clerks who have, in succession, tended Dade’s books for the past 16 years both said they’d never seen revenue from bond forfeitures.
But County Attorney Robin Rogers says the Sentinel got it wrong. “That’s not what I understand the factual background to be,” he said.
Rogers was speaking after last Thursday’s Dade County Commission meeting, at which he told Chairman Ted Rumley and the other commissioners that Sheriff Patrick Cannon and his staff were working hard to determine what bondsmen owed the county.
Cannon, who in the months leading up to this summer’s Republican primary, which he lost to challenger Ray Cross, did not answer or acknowledge the Sentinel’s repeated interview requests. County Attorney Rogers did, however, respond on Cannon’s behalf to the Sentinel’s open records request in this matter.
The Sentinel had requested any records showing that bond forfeitures had been paid during the last eight years. Attorney Rogers wrote in answer: “As provided by O.C.G.A. [section] 50-18-71, the cost to search, retrieve, and copy the requested document is $115.50. This fee includes a charge of $20.00 per hour (6 hours) to cover the administrative costs of assisting you with your request (i.e., staff time searching for, retrieving and copying the requested documents) as authorized by O.C.G.A. [section] 50-18-71. This fee represents the hourly rate of the lowest paid employee with the necessary skill and training to respond to your request. There is no charge for the first fifteen minutes. The charge for copies is $0.10 a page, and there appear to be 5 pages responsive to your request and subject to release under the open records law.”
That, minus the code citations and the prim legalese, would seem to translate to the brow-puckering mixed message that yes, the sheriff’s department has, so, collected bond forfeitures within the last eight years; but no, it won’t show documents demonstrating that it has unless the Sentinel coughs up $115 for five pages.
The Sentinel, while eager for the chance to show the sheriff’s department is operating properly in regard to the bonding companies, regrets that doing so has been priced out of its market. So whether the five pages represent five bond forfeitures over the past eight years, or whether they represent a five-page list of forfeitures, or whether they represent something else entirely, that must remain shrouded in mystery unless or until prices are slashed.
Bail bondsmen make their living by charging arrestees a percentage, typically 10 percent, of the bail that judges set to allow them to go free pending trial. Then the bondsman must either produce the individual for trial or forfeit the bond amount to the county.
The matter of bail bonds in Dade arose as a campaign issue in this year’s sheriff’s race. The Sentinel, following up, found over $300,000 in FIFA liens for unpaid bond forfeitures at the county courthouse, some of them dating back to 2005.
But Rogers, consenting to comment briefly in person after Thursday’s commission meeting explained that the face value of the liens is no indication of any real money the county will ever see.
“Just because there’s a FIFA there for a certain amount, the statute doesn’t say they owe that amount,” he said. “After the judgment absolute goes down, if, in fact, the bonding company brings that person in within so many days, like 120 days, they get 95 percent of it back. If they bring him back within two years, they get 50 percent of it.”
As to why the county clerks had not seen any percentage at all for the past 16 years, Rogers said he couldn’t speak to that. “There was a policy in place to deal with that,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if there’s been a breakdown somewhere, but my own sensibility is, if the county’s owed money, we will collect that money. The sheriff feels the same way.”
Rogers also said that Dade had never, as the Sentinel reported, required bonding companies to vouchsafe in cash or cash equivalent $150,000 as a guarantee of their bonds. He said confusion might have arisen because Dade’s bail bond policy was adapted from Cobb County’s, which does require that substantial an amount.
“The initial policy, that came from Cobb County, it did have that paragraph in there, but it was revised several times before it became the county policy, and the county policy never contained that provision,” said Rogers.
The $150,000 reference came from the written policy the sheriff’s department produced two weeks ago in response to the office of the District Attorney’s request for guidelines for bonding companies. The D.A.’s office in turn furnished a copy of that policy, headed “Dade County Sheriff’s Office” on each page, to the Sentinel.
In any case, bonding companies in Dade really are required to deposit $30,000 in an escrow account as a guarantee to the county. Chairman Rumley and County Clerk Don Townsend earlier confirmed that the three bonding companies operating in Dade each had produced that sum, now in two interest-bearing certificates of deposit at Citizens Bank and Trust currently amounting to $96,505.72. At issue now is why the sheriff has not dipped into those escrows to satisfy the companies’ unpaid forfeitures.
The fates of sheriffs and of bonding companies are intimately entwined. The bail companies operate within a county only at the sheriff’s say-so. As such, it is not surprising to see bondsmen’s names on the list of sheriff candidates’ campaign contributors. Contributors to candidate Philip Street’s campaign this year include Gary Brock of Gary’s Bail Bonding and Tommy Ford of Dade County Bail Bonds, according to the ethics.ga.gov website.
Meanwhile, among the contributors to the Ray Cross campaign the Sentinel found Randy Stone’s name. Stone together with Wildwood businessman Wes Hixson wrote a letter to the editor in this newspaper denying they had any interest in forming a new bail bond company.
Earlier, the Sentinel reported FIFA liens for unpaid bail bond forfeitures in the amount of $46,639.60 for Dade County Bail Bonding, $216,868.90 for Gary’s Bail Bonding, and $50,405 for its predecessor, Brock Bail Bonding.
Robin Rogers told the county commission he expected to have news on the bond forfeiture front by next month’s meeting, and Chairman Rumley said he was satisfied the sheriff’s department was not dragging its feet on the matter. “They assured me that it’s not going to rock on for a month,” said Rumley. “In the next couple of weeks, they’re going to come in and pay what they owe.”