Feature: Wednesday, April 18, 2002
Get out of Jail

Even bondsmen think tarrant county’s bail bond system needs reform.

By Betty Brink

Guadalupe Perez was clearly uncomfortable. The slightly built bail bondsman known as Lupe was shifting from foot to foot as he stood at the podium in the Tarrant County Commissioners courtroom in early April being grilled by an assistant district attorney. His license was up for renewal the next day, and here he was, having to answer charges that he had failed to notify a client of a court date — a mistake that ultimately led to her arrest and a six-day stint in the county jail. That violation alone could get his license jerked on the spot. But that was only the beginning of his troubles. “Failure to notify” was just the first of 10 bail bond rule violations he had to answer to that day.

The allegations of misconduct that Perez faced that morning had originally been brought against his former employer and the man who helped set him up in the bail bond business. Ron Cornett, owner of Affordable Bail Bonds, resigned his license last month shortly before he was to appear before the board on complaints brought by two former clients, Lori Criss and Monica Gannon. Cornett dodged the bullet. Now, because Perez had worked as a bondsman and agent under Cornett, signed off on both women’s bonds, and used Cornett’s business name as his own, he inherited his old boss’ mess of alleged rules violations.

Twelve unsmiling men and women of the Tarrant County Bail Bond Board were staring down skeptically at Perez from the court’s high bench. This crew could take away his livelihood by a simple majority vote. To make matters worse, one of the charges — that of being a party to recommending an attorney to Gannon, when his office was executing her bond — is a crime carrying possible jail time.

“Where is your record of all of the court notifications that is required to be kept by the [local bail bond board] rules?”asked prosecutor David Hudson. Perez, a handsome, soft-spoken 29-year-old, seemed taken aback by the forceful questioning..

“I didn’t, I don’t know ...,” the bondsman mumbled, his voice trailing off, his eyes avoiding contact with his interrogator.

“Look at the local rules,” Hudson said. “Rule 10 ... you have the responsibility of noticing all clients of all court dates and a record [must be] kept of all files for a year,” he said as he looked through the thin bundle of office records Perez had brought. “There’s no record at all of any notice being given of a July 31 court date setting, is there?”

Perez dodged, telling Hudson that the date was set by “verbal notice” from Criminal District Court Judge Sharen Wilson late in the day of July 27, that it was a hasty court setting and that Criss couldn’t be found in the three days Wilson had given him, even though he admitted he had at least four phone numbers for her. (Wilson declined to comment on this story.) “I tried to contact her from the office,” he said. “I couldn’t contact her . ... she did return our phone call [after the court date had passed] and I had a message to call her back,” he said.

Then he changed his testimony, remembering that he wasn’t involved at all. It was another employee, Hector Rocha, who got the call from the judge’s office, Perez said, and it was Rocha who tried without success to contact the client by phone. Pressured by board member Judge Stewart Milner, Perez conceded that the client had shown up on other court dates when notified and called in on a weekly basis as required. Perez didn’t have a clue, he said, as to why Rocha couldn’t reach her.

And Rocha didn’t show up to explain. He was the second of Perez’s employees who were material witnesses but were no-shows even though the board had asked that he bring them all in. The omission gave the board’s chairman, County Commissioner J.D. Johnson, an opportunity to get the first smiles of the day from board members, when he leaned forward, squinted at Perez, and growled rhetorically, “How many employees did you not bring with you today?” Perez shrugged, looking even more dejected.

Hudson continued to press for a straight answer on the record-keeping question: “But there’s no written record in this file for the July 31 setting,” he said, and no written record of any attempts to notify the client.

“Right,” Perez finally admitted.

With that admission, a wide smile crossed the face of Criss, 32, who first brought her charges to the board last October.

After five hours of listening to Perez’s defense, the board, in a turnaround from its initial dismissive attitude towards Criss’ complaint, affirmed six of the ten charges against him. The decision stunned just about everyone, especially bail bond operators. “Six affirmations is unheard of from this board,” said Luanne Smith Dibrell, a bondswoman in the business here for 22 years.

Criss was ecstatic. “It was worth the long wait,” she said. “Now maybe they’ll clean up this business.”

Don’t bet on it. Instead of suspending his license, as some board members wanted, District Clerk Tom Wilder and bondsman L.G. Cornish — both board members — argued that the board shouldn’t “take the man’s livelihood away.” They prevailed and Perez was saved by a 6-to-4 vote that simply tabled his license renewal for 30 days to give him time to “clean up his act.”

Some hailed the decision as proof that this board has put dirty bondsmen on notice that it will be more aggressive in policing them. Others say the punishment proves it’s just good-old-boy business as usual.

In any event, the case has thrown a spotlight into one of the darker corners of the Tarrant County justice system — a corner that just about everyone involved says could profit from some clean-up. Critics say favoritism, lax enforcement of rules, and acceptance of cozy bondsman-lawyer relationships put both defendants and the county at risk. Reformers suggest that there are better ways to protect an accused person’s constitutional rights than the current for-profit system used here. They point to two ideas — pre-trial release and the 10 percent personal bond system — as workable programs in wide use in other states and some Texas counties. None hold out hope, however, that Tarrant County will be implementing such reforms any time soon.

John Rihel is one bondsman here who’s not happy with the system in Tarrant County and is threatening to get out. Too much favoritism, he said.

“If I’d done what old Lupe and Cornett had done, I’d be put out of business,” he said. He also points to the glut of bondsmen here who cut prices to get clients and wind up “hurting us all.” Plus more people are jumping bail, he said, and that’s costing him. “I don’t know why, but forfeitures are up,” he said. According to county records, forfeitures have increase during the first six months of this year over the same period last year. Courts, he said, are imposing harsher sentences, and more defendants are running. But more than that, Rihel, who runs the business with his wife, is angry about the board’s allowing Ron Cornett to keep his license after his felony conviction on money laundering charges, even though the board rules forbid licensing a convicted felon. Plus, he said, he doesn’t understand why Cornett continued to operate his business until he voluntarily resigned last month, even though the terms of his federal probation prohibited him from owning or operating a bail business. “If a federal judge had told me that I had to get out of the business, I wouldn’t be over at that office every morning.

“There are a few select people here,” he said, “They’re the guys who get by with breaking the rules.”

Camille Hodnett agrees. She’s run a small bonding company here for years. “We’re supposed to police ourselves, and we should. We have rules and regulations that we have to follow,” she said, “and we should hold ourselves to a very high standard. When people are reprimanded, the board has to be consistent in punishment.” This board is far from consistent, she said.

Hodnett, Luanne Dibrell and bondsman Ronnie Long all pointed to the discrepancies in the board’s response to the recent cases of Cornett and Carl Schuder, Jr. After Cornett was convicted in 1999 and his appeal on the federal case was thrown out, he continued to operate openly. Schuder, on the other hand, had his license “jerked by the board in 24 hours,” Dibrell said, after his conviction on accepting stolen property — a computer — in a local police sting operation two years ago.

All three are angry about the board’s decision in the Perez case, and they say most bondsmen here agree.

“Six violations are unheard of,” Dibrell said. “But what really shocked me was six violations and no action. That’s an outrage.

“These were serious violations the board affirmed,” Dibrell said. They included an illegal charge for a writ bond, falsifying receipts, failure to issue receipts for cash and collateral, failing to notify a client of a court date; operating under a false name, and misleading advertising.

“I’ve never heard of anyone getting their license withheld for advertising violations [as Perez did] without an order from the board to disconnect their phones,” she said. If they’re not going to police us, why have the board?”

Over at the Affordable Bail Bond office in Arlington, the phones are still being answered “bond office.” When an employee named Daniel answered and was asked why the phones are being answered that way with no licensed bondsman there, he laughed. “I’ve just always answered that way,” he said. “We’re not writing any bonds,” he said.

Perez and Cornett have not returned calls from Fort Worth Weekly.

As for Perez’s license being on hold for 30 days, Hodnett said that even if he can’t write bonds during that time, there’s nothing to keep him from getting calls and referring them to others who might be willing to help him out financially.

George Gallagher, a district judge who sits on the board and made the initial motion to suspend Perez’s license, said that day that he wanted to send a message to the industry that it is going to be well policed. He denied that the amended action watered down that message.

“The ball’s in Perez’s court,” he said. “He has 30 days to get his act together and show us that he has cleaned up all those violations before we will give him a license. It could take him longer than 30 days, so I don’t think the punishment has been weakened.” And if the board finds out that Perez is indeed acting as a front for Cornett, the board will “absolutely” deny him a license, he said.

The system works well the way it is, Gallagher said, and he sees no reason to reform it. The board’s action was aggressive enough, he said.

Suzanne Henderson, board member and county clerk, disagrees. She voted for the stronger sanction of suspending Perez’ license in order “to send a message ... that the board wouldn’t tolerate such wrong behavior,” she said. “He didn’t get as severe as he should have gotten.” Henderson said this case shows her there “is some room for reform.” And that shouldn’t scare honest bondsmen, she said. “For those who take care of their business, they’ll be appreciated.” But from now on, she said, “I’m going to look real close at those in this business. They’re going to have to keep it clean.” And she added, “If we had taken up this issue when we should have, when it first came up on Cornett, we probably wouldn’t have been dealing with Perez.”

While Gallagher spoke freely of the Perez hearing, he would not comment on Cornett. Gallagher was Cornett’s lawyer when he pled guilty to money laundering in a federal court in 1998.

A lot of dots connect Gallagher to Cornett and others in a tightly knit local group that has a weighty influence on the Tarrant County bail bond business. State Sen. Chris Harris, a political ally of District Clerk (and bail bond board member) Tom Wilder, recommended Gallagher for a district judgeship in 1998. When Gallagher left private practice for the bench, Randy Myers, an attorney whose clients did a lot of bail business with Cornett and Perez, took over representation of Cornett. Harris, in turn, owns or has owned several pieces of property with Ron Cornett. Several of those parcels are now owned by Perez, who listed them as assets in proving to the bail bond board that he is financially able to write bonds in Tarrant County.

Lori Criss’ only disappointment in the outcome of the hearing, she said, was the board’s failure to consider the connections between Cornett, Perez, and certain lawyers here. She said in her complaint to the board that Cornett had recommended two attorneys — Ernie Bates and Randy Myers — to her when she was first arrested in March on a charge of keying her boyfriend’s car after a messy breakup.

When she was bailed out by Cornett’s office, she claimed in her affidavit, Cornett told her she should use either Bates or Myers. The lawyers have denied any connection to Cornett, although Bates’ name did show up on court filings as Criss’ first lawyer, and his name is on a writ bond for Monica Gannon, whose son claims that Ron Cornett called Bates in his presence and asked him to help get his mother out of jail. (The boy had gone to Affordable the night his mother was arrested to get her bailed out.)

(The law cuts only one way in this instance. Bail bondsmen are criminally liable if they recommend a particular attorney to a client. There is no law against lawyers accepting clients recommended by bondsmen or recommending bondsmen to their clients.)

Mike Sadler, Criss’ attorney, presented the board with documents from the district clerk’s office showing that from Jan. 1-31, 2002, either Perez or Cornett was listed as the bondsman on 25 of Bates’ 36 cases and 11 of Myers’ 19 cases.

Fort Worth Weekly found that court records showed a similar pattern for the next two months: From Feb. 1 through March 30, Perez was listed as the bondsman on 12 of Myers’ 18 cases and 22 of Bates’ 44.

The county documents do not prove that Cornett or Perez told their clients to use the two attorneys. Criss and Sadler, however, said the pattern should have convinced the board to investigate.

The appearance of a connection between bondsmen and attorneys here is one that also troubles prosecutor Alan Levy. “Bondsmen, even though they are not supposed to recommend attorneys, often have offices with lawyers in the same building or next door. You can’t get much more subtle than that.”

L.G. Cornish, the bondsman on the board, goes even further. He shares his bail bond sign with an attorney.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Cornish said. “If someone wants to make something of it, they can file charges, but I’m not doing anything in violation of the law. You’re just fishing.” Cornish has said in public hearings that he has “on occasion” taken money from his clients on behalf of an attorney, something that gets close to fee-splitting, another no-no, according to board rules. Cornish said he only takes money as a service when a lawyer asks him to get some money from the client and hold it until the lawyer can show up to get it. “They don’t want the client to get away without paying,” Cornish said, “and I don’t keep any of it, or charge the lawyer for doing it.”

Throughout the county, shared office space between bondsmen and lawyers seems a routine practice. Both bondsmen and criminal attorneys want locations close to jails and courthouses, where the business is. Sadler, however, thinks the practice needs to be cleaned up.

“Either [the sheriff and the bail bond board] investigate and eliminate these illegal connections [between bondsmen and attorneys] or the body politic will ... change the system, likely doing away with bondsmen in the process, as has happened in other jurisdictions,” he said.

To say that bail bondsmen “don’t have the best reputation” is a serious understatement. “It’s a bad rap, being a bondsman,” Ronnie Long said, in an interview from his office. His peers call Long a straight-shooter who tends to his business and keeps his eye on his clients. Bondsmen in large counties are regulated by a bail bond board made up of certain elected officials. In smaller counties, the sheriff’s office regulates. And while there are state laws that apply to a bondsman’s conduct, there is no statewide oversight board for the industry.

“We provide a valuable service,” Long said, “and the majority of us are honest, hard-working people. It’s the bad apples, just like in every business, that make us all look bad,” he said. “I personally have tried to make it a clean operation.”

In Tarrant County, the chances of an arrested person quickly finding a bondsman who will cut a good price are greater than in any other jurisdiction in the state. There are 72 licensed bondsmen and women in this county, far more than any other county in the state, except Harris which has 80 — and also has a population almost three times that of Tarrant. Dallas County operates with only 31, and Travis County, which is closer in population to Tarrant, has 15.

“It’s way too many for the size of this county,” said Long, who’s been in business here 25 years and is a former president of the local bail bond association. This much competition is good for the person arrested, he said, because many newly licensed bond writers cut fees to build up their businesses. Some here charge as low as 8 percent of the bond, while the more established bondsmen or women charge as high as 15 percent and even higher for high-profile or high-risk clients. That fee belongs to the bondsman, whose collateral is put up with the court to back the bond.

The system is abused, other bondsmen say, because those who cut their fees are working on the margin, and some will make up a reason to get a judge to put the client back in jail so they won’t risk losing money.

The only legal purpose for a bail bond is to make sure that someone charged with a crime will appear in court. There is plenty of disagreement, however, over the best method to guarantee that the accused will show up.

Bondsmen say they do that best, since they have a vested interest — money — in making sure their client stays in town until his or her trial date.

County Criminal Court Judge Daryl Coffey, some prosecutors, and many criminal defense lawyers would like to see Tarrant more fully utilize two systems already in widespread use in larger Texas counties, as well as many states.

One is pre-trial release, which Tarrant has had in place since 1979, set up to address jail overcrowding. Pre-trial release lets certain defendants out without bond, based on their low risk to the community and a character profile developed by professionals in the Pre-trial Release Department who gather information about those who qualify and make that information available to the judges. Bondsmen hate it because it takes money out of their pockets.

Pre-trial release here operates on a small budget that comes from yearly grants from the state. Today it’s under the wing of the commissioners court and its “future is uncertain,” a 2001 report said. It served 4,567 defendants in 2000, a drop in the bucket of the thousands of arrests that occur in Tarrant County in a year. Bondsmen here have lobbied hard to keep the county from putting money into the program. Bondsmen and their professional organization contribute generously to local politicians and, like most big-money contributors to politicians, exert a strong influence over decisions that affect their livelihood. Wilder, for instance, received campaign contributions — at a fund-raiser last fall organized by Sen. Harris — of $1,000 from the Professional Bondsmen of Tarrant County, $500 from Ron Cornett, and $250 each from bondsmen Ernest Thomas, Ronnie Long, and L.G. Cornish. During the board hearing on Lori Criss’ complaints about Cornett and Perez, Wilder argued forcefully against her complaints.

Mike Sadler’s warning that abuses could eventually lead the people to do away with bondsmen altogether isn’t so far-fetched. It happened in Kentucky in 1976. That state, otherwise a poster child for the free-enterprise system, passed the Bail Bond Reform Act making it a criminal offense to make a profit on posting bonds. The legislature created statewide pre-trial services that equalize “the constitutional presumption of innocence” between the rich and the poor, the state’s web page says. Wisconsin followed suit. Other states are tinkering with the idea, although California’s experiment with pre-trial release and the 10 percent personal bond failed, Ronnie Long said, because “the state lost more money on pre-trial release than it did under commercial bonds.” It’s gone back to its old entrepreneurial bail bond ways

No one seriously believes that Texas will ever pass legislation to ban commercial bondsmen. With the power of the bail bond lobby in Austin, prosecutor Levy said, don’t look for any reforms of the current bail bond laws to come out of Austin. “They have one of the most effective and powerful lobbies in the state. Most reform proposals are DOA at the legislature” unless they favor the bail bond industry. And even though bondsmen are deeply entwined in the public justice system, their books are not open to allow the public to find out how much they really profit from this system. “Many probably make more than lawyers,” he said.

In Travis and Bexar counties, the pre-trial system and another reform version called the 10 percent personal bond function as the primary bail bond system.

Jim Rust, director of pre-trial release and probation services for Travis County, said his department is staffed by 20 people trained in law enforcement and psychological evaluation, plus a support staff of 10. They work closely with the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The staff does the legwork for the courts, checking out the background of the defendant, his or her standing in the community, family support, finances and whether the person has ever been in trouble before. Then the staffers present the findings to the judge, who makes the final decision on whether the accused qualifies for a release with no bond. (This type of release is slightly different from a release on one’s own recognizance, which is left to the judge alone.)

“I always look at it this way: The pretrial people we hire are people with a college education who are concerned with justice. They’re dedicated to helping the defendant, the judge and the peace of the community,” Rust said. Cases where there is a clear danger to an individual or the larger community do not qualify for pre-trial, he said. “That means there’s always a need here for surety bonds.”

The 10 percent bond system is the other program Coffey and attorneys such as Sadler would like to see. In that program, the county underwrites the bond for the defendant, who pays 10 percent of his or her bond into a trust fund that can then be used to offset the cost of court-appointed attorneys or be used to pay for polygraphs or other tools to help the accused put on a proper defense.

The beauty of the 10 percent system, say its proponents, is that the defendant gets his or her money back, minus some handling fees for the county, when he or she shows up for court. In the commercial bonding system, of course, the only one who profits from a defendant’s appearance in court is the bondsman, who has collected his nonrefundable fee up front, almost from the moment the client calls from the jail.

Just about everyone interviewed for this article, with the exception of the bondsmen, supported the 10 percent personal bond, with money going into an escrow account that would defer costs to the courts. But Levy said, that with the tremendous amount of political influence that bondsmen here have, it is unlikely that Tarrant County will ever see such a system, even though pre-trial release has been used successfully in many Texas counties for decades.

Bondsmen argue that, while theirs is a for-profit business in the best free-enterprise tradition, it is a boon to the taxpayer because bondsmen get the accused out of jail quickly, which keeps jail costs down, and then they monitor their clients to make sure they stay out of trouble while they’re awaiting trial. “Some of us are like second mothers.” one bondswoman said, “We make them call ‘home’ all the time.” Then they get them to court on time. Well, most of the time. But even those who jump bail help the county, they say, pointing to the big bucks that forfeitures bring into county coffers. The numbers do seem impressive.

Last year, Tarrant County, with a population of 1.4 million, collected $1.8 million in forfeited bonds from its 19 county criminal and district courts, down slightly from the $2 million that came in 2000, according to records from the district attorney’s office. But 2002 should be a very good year. Through March, collections have already topped $1 million.

Across the Trinity in Dallas County, with its 31 bondsmen and 2.2 million souls, sheriff department records show that in 2000 and 2001, $8.8 million was collected in forfeited bonds, about the same per capita as Tarrant, but with many fewer bondsmen.

Coffey says the numbers are misleading. For one thing, he said, not all judges here forfeit bonds. Some have bonds gathering dust from years back, he said, because it’s up to the discretion of each court to seek forfeitures from bondsmen whose clients are no-shows. Even after a bond is forfeited, he said, “it’s settled for 25 percent” of the bond’s face value. “That’s a good deal for the bondsman.

“This is the most lucrative town for a bail bondsman to be,” he said. “The board is pro-bondsman, no one checks the surety the bondsman have to put up to get a license, and the judges don’t forfeit. And when they do, the bondsman settles for 25 percent. No wonder they’re flocking in here.”

Wilder, who touts the bond board’s value in policing the industry, admits that the board seldom checks the veracity of the figures that bondsmen put down for the worth of the property they put up as collateral with the board. Each license carries a minimum of $50,000 in property or other assets. “If someone overvalues his property,” Wilder said, “and we find out about it, we’ll yank his license.” That hasn’t happened in the four years Wilder has been on the board, he said.

Coffey doesn’t hold out much hope for reform in Tarrant’s good-old-boy system. “The hardest thing to change is a local legal system. ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ is the mantra,” he said.

And, while the public may clamor for a large bond to be set on the head of a person charged with a particularly heinous crime, counties seldom collect the full amount of a forfeiture no matter how large or small the bond; both Tarrant and Dallas collect on a sliding scale that protects bondsmen from being wiped out by clients who may run with a $100,000 bond on their heads. Here, the scale starts at 25 percent of the bond, plus court costs if the bondsman can get his runaway back in 30 days, and goes up by degrees to 100 percent after 271 days. And even after that, if the fugitive finally shows up and stands trial, Long said, the bondsman can often negotiate some of his lost money back.

Criminal defense attorneys say they are the losers in the current system because clients have often spent all the money they can beg, borrow, or scrounge from friends and family in getting out of jail and have none left for the lawyer. It’s a valid concern, they say, because this is when the taxpayers lose. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant’s right to legal representation, but defendants whose limited funds have already gone to a bondsman must rely on court-appointed attorneys paid for by the taxpayer.

The bail bond board’s ruling was the end of a long, legally murky, and personally frightening journey for Criss, a 32-year-old single mother. Her complaints of wrongdoing by Cornett and his company and her tenacity in following them finally led to Cornett giving up his license and Perez having to defend his license before the bail bond board.

The board’s finding that Affordable Bail Bonds failed to notify her of the July 31 court date, she said, was especially rewarding. That fiasco resulted in her $2,000 bond being revoked and then upped to $20,555 by Wilson and her humiliating arrest by Tarrant County deputies — all male — who broke into her apartment, pulled her naked from the shower, put her under arrest, and took her half-clothed to the county jail where she stayed for six days. “I’ve been vindicated,” she said.

In the meantime, while reformers find some comfort in the board’s ruling, Coffey for one holds out little hope for reform of a system that hurts the poor more than anyone else.

“There’ll never be indigent reform here [funding to provide defendants a better defense] without bail bond reform,” Coffey said.

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