Bond Bombshell

Debra Fosterís used to rounding up fugitives. Now sheís firing away at Montgomery County.

More important, her brother and Sheriff Williams, for reasons no one seems able to articulate, were feuding. The sheriff's department and the constable's office compete, in a sense, for the drug busts -- and the DEA money -- that come from the lively East County underworld.

Bishop also was a driving force in the move to reopen the case of Roy Criner, a Montgomery County resident who served ten years for a rape he did not commit (see "Hard Time," by Bob Burtman, September 10, 1998). Criner was released in 2000; his supporters say Williams ignored their pleas for help.

But whatever the reason, a war began, pitting Foster against some competing bail bond companies and the sheriff's department. In early 2000 her license was suspended, although the punishment was probated, for using profanity in the jail lobby and for improperly advertising her business. Foster sued over the action and other complaints, and she and the county reached a settlement in May 2000 that rescinded the probation. The agreement called for Foster to receive a letter of reprimand instead, and it required the county board overseeing bail bond companies to adopt a set of rules for conducting disciplinary hearings.

Foster and her boyfriend ride his-and-hers Harleys.
Courtesy of Maggie Foster
Foster and her boyfriend ride his-and-hers Harleys.

Two years later, the two sides were back in court, and nothing had changed. Foster was still claiming to be a victim of unfair practices, and county employees were still saying she was a lousy businessperson with lucrative connections and a bewildering vendetta.

The bail-bonding business may be lucrative for some folks, but it has some quirks, at least as it's practiced in Montgomery County.

You can't really go out and drum up business making cold calls; instead you're dependent on phone calls from recently arrested people or their families. Once the calls come in, you can hustle your butt off trying to get all the relevant information -- spending the night lining up collateral or references, getting the name of the court the case has been assigned to once a probable cause hearing has been held -- but for the most part, you have to wait for the business to come to you.

That's why a location across from the jail is great -- family or friends checking on arrestees are likely to walk right into the closest place.

The jail has an average daily population of about 600, although most bonding companies want phone calls only from newly arrested inmates in the holding cells rather than the "population cells." (If the folks in those cells had enough money to get bonded, it likely would have happened when they were first brought in.)

Many Harris County bond companies don't accept collect calls from the jail -- if inmates can't contact friends, relatives or a lawyer first, they're not considered likely to have the resources needed to make bond -- but in Montgomery County the phone calls are considered very important.

That's why Foster says it was distressing when she kept hearing from released inmates that they had tried but been unable to reach her from the holding cell. Or when calls that did go through got mysteriously disconnected before much information could be gathered.

The phone calls are so important, and inmate behavior so predictable, that the bail bond companies devised a system where the names and numbers of all the two dozen or so companies operating in the county would be posted on a Plexiglas-protected board in the cells. The companies would rotate on the list each month, moving up one notch while the top-listed company dropped to the bottom. A company's revenues for any given month tended to track its position on the chart.

From March 2001 until October 2002, evidence in the case shows, Foster's company never moved to the top of the list. It reached second in July 2001 but was dropped to the bottom the next month instead of moving up. Other companies, such as Daisy Bail Bonds, reached No. 1 but never dropped all the way to the bottom. In February 2002, Daisy Bail Bonds was No. 1; the next month it moved down to only No. 3.

Hittner, who was being asked to issue a temporary injunction blocking the county from taking any actions unfair to Foster, reacted in his typical blunt fashion when he saw the evidence April 14.

Suzanne Laechelin, the assistant county attorney representing Montgomery County, tried to say the chart oddities may have been caused by ineptitude.

"Whoever did it might have done a junky job," she said, arguing that the chart is being handled in a different way now.

"Look at this," Hittner said. "One company never made it to the top, another never made it to the bottom. Junky? It looks like someone's looking out for someone here."

Hittner ordered the county employee who handled the list during that time frame to come to court the next day. And so Renee Duewall appeared, chewing gum on the stand until Laechelin suggested she take it out "before the judge has to say something." ("It was noticed," Hittner threw in.)

Duewall said she always put together the list properly and handed it to a lieutenant in the sheriff's department to post in the cells.

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