Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has to get to the bottom of whether bail bond agents and surety companies in some Florida counties are getting away with not paying the full bond when a defendant skips town. The allegations are not new. They have been swirling at least since Atwater's predecessor, Alex Sink, was in office. There has been plenty of time to explore the extent of the problem, and more needs to be done.
Robert Kerrigan, a trial attorney from Pensacola, claims that the state has failed to collect millions of dollars in judgments against bail bondsmen and their insurers who owe the full value of a posted bond after a defendant fails to appear in court. In a suit filed in Escambia County in 2009 on behalf of two bail bondsmen, Kerrigan alleges that five insurance companies were not paying bail bond judgments, putting his more responsible clients at a competitive disadvantage. There is little incentive for bondsmen to try to track down the defendant if they don't have to make good on the insurance policy.
Court clerks are charged with collecting on bond judgments. But an agency within the CFO's office has the responsibility of compelling payment or suspending the license of a bond agent when bonds are due past a set number of days. Pat Frank, Hillsborough County clerk of the Circuit Court, and Ken Burke, her counterpart in Pinellas County, say state enforcement has lagged. When bonds aren't paid, the sheriff will bar the agents and their insurers from doing any more bond business in the county. But without swift and sure statewide consequences, those same players can pop up somewhere else.
The issue has been complicated by a possible coverup in the CFO's office. Ray Wenger, the head of the division that handles bail bonds, received only a one-day suspension after his staffer shredded 150 boxes of bond judgments that Kerrigan had requested to see. The document destruction means the evidence of Kerrigan's complaint, that some bond insurers continue to get work without paying up, has been destroyed. The answer as to how this happened — by mistake — has not been satisfying.
Atwater has not been idle. He has tightened rules and created a tracking system that should help get more bond agents to satisfy judgments on time — restitution and fines have already been meted out. And Atwater is auditing a small number of counties, looking for outstanding judgments. It's a good start. But he needs to dig deeper and determine whether any counties granted favored bondsmen preferential treatment, if any members of his own department's staff helped keep it quiet, and if his department has been too lax in using its enforcement powers. Atwater inherited this problem. Now it's his to fix.