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Over $26 Million Owed for Forfeited Bail Bonds in Harris County, Texas

by Matt Clarke

If you are arrested in Harris County (Houston), Texas, you can usually pay a bondsman 10% of the bail amount to get out of jail. The bondsman pledges the full amount and assures your appearance in court. But what if you are one of the estimated 5% of prisoners who bond out but then don’t show up? Who pays the forfeited bail?

Theoretically the bonding company must pay and then attempt to collect the money from the bail jumper. In practice, however, there is little enforcement of judgments against bonding companies or individuals who forfeit bail. A recent review by the Houston Chronicle found that 500 bonding companies, some no longer in business, owe the county more than $26 million in bond forfeitures, some of which are decades old.

On average there are 13,000 criminal defendants on bond in Harris County at any given time. Harris County bonding companies typically hold bail guarantees in excess of $125 million. This massive business is regulated by the 11-member Harris County Bail Bond Board (HCBBB), which employs just four staff members to oversee the 86 bonding companies in Harris County and collect outstanding debts. The board has not taken any public disciplinary action against a bonding company in the past seven years.

HCBBB member and Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez was unable to produce a recent payment list for bond-related debts. “It’s convoluted,” he said.

Assistant County Attorney Clyde Leuchtag, HCBBB’s legal advisor, admitted he was unfamiliar with the board’s state law-mandated legal responsibilities. The board has no conflict-of-interest or ethical rules. In one recent case, an HCBBB member reportedly voted to approve his brother’s license.

HCBBB employees lack the personnel and computer technology to track which bonding companies owe large amounts of money to Harris County. And even when an outstanding debt is discovered, it may not be easy to collect. Kathy Braddock, an assistant district attorney who had long been in charge of the D.A.’s Bond Forfeiture Division, noticed a $200,000 forfeiture by a drug defendant that was several years old. She sued the bonding company, but the company argued the county was at fault for neglecting the debt for so long. Thus far the litigation has dragged on for two years.

In another case, Geraldine Soileau, a former bonding company owner, accumulated $650,000 in forfeiture debts. The HCBBB revoked her license in 2003. But when the county attempted to collect, she declared bankruptcy and the federal bankruptcy judge allowed her to discharge the forfeitures, saying the county knew it was accepting risky, bond-related debt.

The bail bond business in Harris County has been driven strongly in recent years by a policy of Harris County judges of not allowing personal recognizance bonds, even for arrestees charged with minor offenses. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.30]. District judges have also raised bond rates for repeat minor drug offenders and persons suspected of entering the country illegally.

Former HCBBB member and politically-active bondman Felix Michael Kubosh suggested that the board spend some of the $4 million in annual bond collection revenues on improving oversight and collecting forfeited bonds.

“I’m for accountability,” said Kubash. “I think it keeps out the unscrupulous if the numbers are right and makes sure we are all playing by the same rules.”

There are recent signs that issues related to bonding companies in Harris County are being taken more seriously. On September 14, 2010, a grand jury indicted Linda Sue Harrison, a bail bondsman, on seven counts that included theft, forgery, making a false statement to obtain credit, impersonating a public servant and aggravated perjury. Among other things, she is accused of forging the name of a notary public and lying about her primary residence to the HCBBB.

Linda Sue’s husband, Edwin Charles Harrison, who serves as Harris County’s chief financial officer, was charged with making a false statement to obtain credit, theft, tampering with a governmental record and misapplication of fiduciary property. It is unclear to what extent, if any, those charges are related to his wife’s bail bond business.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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