Bonds Away

The amount of forfeited bail bonds grows, and nothing is done

Johnny Nelms, the bonding business' representative on the board, doesn't dispute that bondsmen owe the county millions, but he says the reforms proposed by Tompkins would hurt responsible practitioners of his trade.

"There's a bunch of bondsmen here in Harris County that don't have no trouble with making bail and paying the forfeitures," says Nelms. "You got some bad ones, of course. But it ain't all bad."

The real culprit in the bail bonding business in Harris County, Nelms argues, is the Pretrial Services Agency -- the bondsmen's chief competition. Nelms claims that the agency, which obtains bail for some defendants on their own recognizance, owes more in forfeited bonds than bondsmen. But the district clerk's study showing that bondsmen could owe as much s $61 million puts the dollar amount of bonds forfeited by Pretrial Services' clients at just $4.6 million -- a figure Nelms dismisses as "ridiculous."

Pretrial Services has long been a target of the commercial bond business. Created in 1975 when a federal judge ordered Harris County to alleviate jail overcrowding, the agency coordinates personal recognizance bonds for defendants deemed by judges to be good risks to show up in court. By using personal recognizance bonds, low-risk defendants who would otherwise remain incarcerated are returned to the streets instead of being sent to a jail cell, a precious law enforcement commodity these days.

Although commercial bonds still are used in almost 70 percent of the criminal cases in Harris County, personal recognizance, or PR bonds, cut into the business of bonding companies. Too much so, in the opinion of many bondsmen, who accuse Pretrial Services officials of cooking the books.

Last June, Allegheny Mutual Casualty Company (which allows Blackwood and Mercer to write bonds on its license), International Fidelity Insurance Company, American Bonding Company and National American Insurance Company -- companies that guarantee bonds for local bonding companies -- jointly filed a federal lawsuit against Charles Noble and Carol Oeller, the director and assistant director of Pretrial Services. "[Noble and Oeller] have engaged in a series of acts that are illegal and unauthorized under state law," the companies claimed, "and have engaged in a conspiracy whose avowed purpose is to drive the [insurance companies] out of business."

Specifically, the four companies accuse Noble and Oeller of falsifying the failure-to-appear rate of PR bond recipients. According to Pretrial Services, defendants released from jail on their own recognizance fail to appear in court only 7 percent of the time -- compared to 8.5 percent of the defendants freed by bonding companies. Bail bondsmen contend the Pretrial Services' rate is actually closer to 20 percent, and they claim Noble and Oeller falsified the figures to make the agency look better to the judges who ultimately decide whether or not an accused criminal will be released on recognizance.

After the bonding companies filed suit against Noble and Oeller, the two Pretrial Services officials filed a $1 million countersuit of their own for defamation of character, claiming the suit against them was an attack on their integrity and ability to conduct county business.

"I'm looking for public vindication," says Noble. "I am not going to have any of the judges or commissioners think that the director and assistant director of this agency stole money, lied or tampered with the records."

After Noble and Oeller filed their countersuit, attorneys for the bonding companies asked U.S. District Judge Norman Black to throw it out. Black refused, and he suggested that Noble and Oeller had sound reasons for their litigation, considering the allegations that had been made against them.

"Such conduct would constitute a crime and the statements, which allege commission of a crime, would affect defendants in their office, profession or occupation," Black wrote.

Black issued his ruling in February. Since then, the insurance companies apparently have had a change of heart. Their attorney, Roger Moore, says they'd just like to forget the whole mess and are willing to drop their suit if the Harris County Attorney's Office doesn't seek to recoup the cost of representing Noble and Oeller in their official capacity, and if the two officials will drop their private countersuit. (Since the filing of the lawsuit against Noble and Oeller, one of the four companies, American Bonding, has been suspended from doing new business in ten states, including Texas. A second, National American, was charged in Harris County in January with four misdemeanor violations of the bail bond act.)

"We offered that both sides simply dismiss their claims and go home," says Moore, adding that the problems cited in the bondsmen's lawsuit have now been brought to the attention of county officials.

Officials with the Harris County Attorney's Office say they are willing to walk away from the legal dispute, providing that the insurance companies cover the county's expenses. But Noble wants nothing to do with Moore's offer. He says he considered the offer for a reasonable amount of time -- about two seconds -- and then rejected it.

"The [people] suing me have murdered the truth," he says. "This case is going to trial." In other words, Charles Noble will not fail to appear.

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