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Bail bill's critics say sponsors practice legislative legerdemain

TALLAHASSEE — A so-called "bailout" for the bail bond industry is dissolving into political gamesmanship as the legislation advances to the House floor.

The sponsor, a future House speaker, stripped controversial language last month to disarm a skeptical panel — but restored a similar provision Monday with the consent of friendlier lawmakers.

And a bail bond business is being criticized for hosting a fundraiser for state Rep. Sandy Adams three days after she helped pushed the bill through her committee.

The measure (HB445) would eliminate pretrial release programs operated in several Florida counties by limiting eligibility only to indigent, nonviolent defendants. It also revokes a county's ability to charge a fee, with exceptions for court-ordered GPS monitoring and rehabilitation programs.

It's a polarizing battle, drawing barbed exchanges in hearings as the bail bond industry fights what it sees as an overzealous government competing with business.

The local entities, led by sheriffs, say the bill makes it harder for defendants to get out of jail, and will cost taxpayers millions more to house and feed them.

The bill now goes to the full House but faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

Rep. Chris Dorworth, the anointed House leader in 2014, drew criticism for his tactics. He helped add a controversial provision after previously deleting similar language in a committee where he needed the support of a Democrat, who gave it an edge, 6-5.

He called the new language a compromise, one letting judges decide if a defendant is indigent and able to participate in the pretrial programs.

But Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat, had a different view: "I think it's potentially an attempt to do through the back door what he couldn't do through the front door," he said.

Adams, R-Orlando, a candidate for Congress, also drew a rebuke after the president and lobbyist for Accredited, a Central Florida bail bond insurer, hosted a fundraiser for her on March 29, days after her House criminal justice budget committee passed the bill.

"It is very clear to me that when you have special interests with influence, these influences sometimes get preference over taxpayers' interests," said Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats.

Adams, a former sheriff's deputy, said she supported the bill but didn't lobby for it. She disputed the timing.

Her campaign initially scheduled the event before session, but rescheduled it for March 26 — the day of the committee vote. The scheduling conflict led to another postponement to March 29, but the event still raised at least $10,000.

State law bars lawmakers from raising campaign cash during the legislative session but exempts congressional candidates.

Altogether, Accredited donated $15,000 to state lawmakers in the 2010 cycle and other bail bond companies added thousands more.

Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

Bail bill's critics say sponsors practice legislative legerdemain 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 10:04pm]
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