Posts Tagged ‘orlando bail bonds’

TALLAHASSEE — Could Florida be missing out on millions of dollars in revenue?

Pensacola trial lawyer Robert Kerrigan says state and local officials have long ignored a law that requires bond agents and surety companies to lose their licenses when they fail to pay up after defendants skip town.

As a result, the state’s court system has failed to collect judgments totaling millions of dollars, Kerrigan contends. He represents a Pensacola bondsman who claims the failure of clerks and courts to uphold the law damages competitors who comply with it.

After three years of discussion and sometimes heated exchanges between state officials and Kerrigan, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has ordered an audit to determine whether circuit clerks are correctly handling bond forfeitures. Atwater’s staff has audited one county, Leon, and plans to audit six others.

The dispute has lasted more than three years, beginning when Alex Sink was the state’s chief financial officer. Kerrigan says both officials failed to comply with state law and have allowed bail bond insurance companies to skate.

“Virtually all the statutory and regulatory control over this industry does not exist in Florida,” Kerrigan said recently. “The few honest bondsmen and the few responsible insurance companies that adhere to the law are the exception, not the rule.”

Kerrigan said the system surrounding bail bonds is “dysfunctional by design.”

When defendants don’t show up, there is no consequence to the bail bondsman or his insurance company. They have no incentive to try to find the defendant, Kerrigan said.

During the three years Kerrigan has been fighting on behalf of a whistle-blower client, the state agency that supervises bonds destroyed more than 150 boxes of judgments, leaving the state without any ability to determine how much money was not collected.

In 2009, Kerrigan filed a lawsuit in Escambia County on behalf of two bail bondsmen, alleging that five insurance companies were not paying bail bond judgments. State law requires clerks to send copies of unpaid judgments to the state Office of Insurance Regulation if the judgment is not paid within 60 days. The state is supposed to compel payment or suspend the license of the insurance company that underwrites bonds.

In January 2010, Kerrigan sought copies of judgments on file with insurance regulators.

At first officials advised him that there were more than 8,500 documents filling several drawers. Then officials said there were about 3,500 documents.

By April that year, officials at the state agency said they no longer had the documents because they had been erroneously shredded.

Kerrigan reported the destruction of the public records to Ben Diamond, a lawyer who was general counsel for then-CFO Alex Sink. Diamond asked the agency’s Inspector General to investigate. In the end the shredding was blamed on Terry Jennings, a clerk assigned to move boxes of records to storage.

Ray Wenger, longtime head of the division that handles bail bonds, told investigators that Jennings mishandled boxes of documents that should have been stored.

An Inspector General’s investigation found Wenger was negligent when he failed to exercise due care and diligence in performance of his duties. He was suspended for one day.

In the midst of Kerrigan’s battle to get the records, Sink sent a letter to the state’s 67 Circuit Clerks suggesting she needed help from the clerks to be sure Florida was collecting unpaid judgments from bondsmen.

“Working together we can ensure that all unpaid forfeitures are satisfied for the benefit of all Floridians,” Sink wrote.

Still, the problem continued, Kerrigan says. The insurance companies that failed to pay judgments were allowed to continue writing bonds.

Kerrigan has been on a crusade attempting to find someone who will crack down on the bondsmen who don’t pay judgments. In the past year he’s met with representatives of Gov. Rick Scott, Sink, Atwater, the Florida Senate and others in an attempt to get someone interested in the problem.

After Atwater ordered some audits, Leon County Circuit Clerk Bob Inzer volunteered his operation for review. A preliminary audit released to the Tampa Bay Times found no loss of state revenue but did identify instances where the clerk failed to take action against the bonding company.

Inzer said court rules provide an additional five days to act and some delays are encountered because of staff shortages and other budget constraints. Statewide budget cuts of as much as 25 percent have forced clerks to give priority to criminal cases.

Alexis Lambert, spokeswoman for Atwater, said the agency has created a process for tracking bail bond judgments received from court clerks and will seek proof of payment from surety companies in cases where they have been unable to determine whether a judgment was paid.

Since installing the rules the state has formally disciplined two of 11 agents who failed to satisfy judgments on time, Lambert said. The agents have been ordered to pay $25,794 in restitution and fines totaling $4,500. She noted that the agency only has jurisdiction over the agents, not the insurance companies.

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GAINESVILLE – Florida freshman offensive lineman Jessamen Dunker appeared in Alachua County court on Thursday morning and was released on his own recognizance after being arrested Wednesday for allegedly stealing a motor scooter and driving with a suspended license.

 

Dunker said he paid $600 for the scooter. He is to not have contact with the alleged victim in the case. He was pulled over for not having a motor vehicle tag and a check showed the scooter had been reported stolen.

 

Gainesville attorney Huntley Johnson, who is representing Dunker, said he’s uncertain if he has a receipt for the sale but noted $600 would have been a fair price for a used scooter in the condition it was in.

 

“I’d hate to count the number of times I had a transaction where I didn’t have a receipt,” Johnson said.

 

Dunker is expected to compete for a starting job on the 2013 team, pending the current situation.

In the face of a groundswell to remove what community members say is extravagant signage advertising bail bonds businesses in Towson, Councilman David Marks said Thursday, Jan. 17, that he was considering sponsoring legislation to ban the signage.

“I have had dozens of people talk about this with me,” Marks, who represents the 5th District including Towson, said. “It’s not just residents, it’s business owners and other leaders in government. This has kind of become the big story over the last two weeks.”

At a meeting of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations Thursday night, Marks said that the legislation to limit bail bonds businesses to one sign no larger than 6 square feet with no illumination would be submitted at the council’s Tuesday, Jan. 22, meeting if the county and the owners of Bail Bonds Inc. cannot privately reach an agreement on reducing the business’ signage.

Bail Bonds Inc. is one of two businesses that have drawn the attention of Marks and his constituents.

Double D Bail Bonds, located at 11 E. Chesapeake Ave., opened over a year ago with signage that some thought represented its name a bit too literally. Its logo is a well-endowed female figure with a “D” written over each breast. Marks also said he was “not thrilled” with that business’ neon signs, which take up much of its window space.

But according to the councilman, the need for change became more urgent when another company, Bail Bonds Inc. installed a large orange sign near the corner of East Chesapeake and Virginia avenues.

John Turnbull, attorney for Bail Bonds Inc., said the business’ owner has a permit for the signs. Even though the sign is legal, Turnbull said he’s aware of the complaints and is in discussions with county attorneys “to negotiate something everyone can live with.”

“We’re trying to stop the issue without litigation,” Turnbull said. “At the end of the day, both parties have an incentive to work something out.”

Turnbull said that some of Statewide Bail Bonds Inc.’s competitors have been the most vocal about the sign. East Chesapeake Avenue also houses A-1 Bailbonds and Elite Bailbonds, in between other office storefronts and small eateries.

“While I understand bail bonds companies may want to set up shop near the District Court, the proliferation of these businesses is changing the complexion of Chesapeake and Virginia avenues, and not for the better,” Marks said in a statement announcing the potential bill. “It was bad enough when one business decided to plaster their windows in neon, but now another has erected a gaudy sign across from a senior citizen home and within a stone’s throw of Historic East Towson.”

Marks said the county executive’s office has been in discussions with attorneys representing the Virginia Avenue shop, but Marks is prepared to introduce legislation on Jan. 22 should those talks not produce results.

The newest sign at Bail Bonds Inc. was made possible by Marks’ decision during the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process last summer to up-zone the property on Virginia Avenue from a mix of residential and home office zoning to part of the downtown Towson core. The councilman said “there was a good reason for upzoning,” citing development on the other side of the property.

But since the zoning was changed, Bail Bonds Inc. moved from a storefront on Chesapeake Avenue to the Virginia Avenue location and erected the new sign.

“There’s sometimes unintended consequences with these things, and I’m trying to correct it,” Marks said.

At the Jan. 17 meeting, several neighborhood association leaders asked Marks if further steps could be taken to limit the number of bail bonds companies in Towson.

Marks said he considered outlawing bail bonds businesses in town center business districts; limiting how many can exist within a certain distance of a library; or creating a separate zoning class for bail bonds companies, one which would require that they obtain special exemptions.

The councilman said he believes those measures may face stiffer opposition from his fellow council members, while the sign bill has a greater chance of passing as a matter of councilmanic courtesy.

The signs are a problem, but the existence of bail bonds companies in the Towson core is the greater problem, at least one community member said.

“That whole area could be a very nice business area,” said Ed Kilcullen, a former GTCCA president and resident of nearby Towson Manor Village. “It’s being taken over by bail bondsmen. We just think it’s not good for business; it’s not good for residential in the area.”

Kilcullen said the signage is “particularly egregious with the bail bondsmen, but we think there could be a lot tighter controls on signage in general.”