Sunday, November 23, 2008

Graft alleged in Bexar bond referrals

John MacCormack at the San Antonio Express News has a superb article ("Bail bond king spreads his favors," Nov. 23) describing the recent rise of a local bail bondsman. The story opens thusly:

As a new operator in the rough-and-tumble Bexar County bail bond business, Albert Saenz quickly climbed to the top after opening his first modest office in 2003 on South Pan Am Expressway.

With a bond writing capability in Bexar County now of more than $32 million — almost twice that of its nearest competitor — his company, AA Best Bail Bonds, is the biggest in town. Saenz also operates nine regional offices spread from Del Rio to Karnes City.

Heavy advertising, aggressive price-cutting and a gambler's taste for risk all helped Saenz thrive in what one regulator called a “cutthroat, backstabbing” business.

He also has enjoyed less obvious advantages, according to many of his former employees.

In interviews with the San Antonio Express-News, a half-dozen of his ex-employees said Saenz gets critical breaks from a range of public officials in exchange for favors including free tickets, out-of-town trips and cash.

“The reason he got so big was because of his friends in the courthouse and jail,” said Alfred Flores, a manager who left at the end of 2006.

“While I was there, he used Spurs tickets, concert tickets, Dallas Cowboys tickets. He has season tickets to everything. Once he took three deputies to the Dallas Cowboys game when they were playing the Eagles,” he said.

“He was rewarding them. They send him bonds,” Flores said.

The lengthy article largely backs up those claims, quoting former employees who claimed to have given tickets or other goodies to courthouse employees, jail administrators, someone in the Bexar DA's office, and even a local (unnamed) judge who allegedly gave out pre-signed "fugitive from justice bonds" to Saenz in exchange for a straight-up cash bribe. It's easy to dismiss that kind of allegation, except the former employee had in their possession one of the blank forms with the judge's signature on it. Oops! The judge declined to be interviewed and the paper didn't publish the jurist's name, so there's definitely more to be told about this story, though the Express-News has gotten off to an excellent start. The whole piece is well worth a read; Mr. MacCormack appears to have done his homework.

This all-too familiar Bexar County saga reminds me of a short essay I saw recently from the Pretrial Justice Institute on "Why Bail Reform Matters," which reminds us of the reasons why "The American Bar Association, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies and the National District Attorneys Association have all called for the elimination of commercial bail bonding."


Anonymous said...

Bravo John MacCormack! I'm sure his findings are only the tip of the iceberg.

I'd love to see suggestions as to how we can prevent this kind of graft in the state of Texas.

Forced transparency comes to mind. As well as vigorous statistical analysis of arrest rates, indictments and convictions for each county as measured against the national average. If the ratio between arrests and convictions is off (in other words, many more arrests and/or indictments than convictions when compared to the national average) there should be an audit, investigation and supervision regardless of the findings. The justice department should supervise the County courts and prosecutor's offices for a good amount time after any investigation - much as they have some control over gerrymandering in the former segregated south or school districts that have never complied with integration (Galveston is one such district).

Also the cost of each of these frivolous prosecutions/indictments to the innocent and to the public should be calculated and publicized. As long as judges and district attorneys can collect bribes from bail bondsmen exchange for more arrests and indictment with impunity, the system will only get worse.

The financial cost of arrests without probably cause should be publicized and the offending DAs who indict and prosecute in these situations should be named and shamed. There should be a thorough analysis of DA "office policies" (a la Thomas Lee Goldstein) and all egregious practices identified and publicized.

For example, Galveston County puts newspaper reporters taking pictures of police brutality through obstruction of justice trials but has 450 violent crimes against women pending and unprocessed. There were 500 reported rapes in 4 years in Galveston County - so that gives you an idea of the backlog on violent crimes while the frivolous prosecutions go on and on. Incidentally, the rape conviction rate in Galveston County is 1.25 percent per reported rape. In Manhattan the conviction rate per reported rape is 48 percent. The brutal and corrupt cops in Galveston County obviously don't think women have a right to speak up when they are raped, but they love to intimidate those who are witness to police misconduct).

Anonymous said...

CORRECTION: The conviction rate per reported rape in Galveston County is 1.25 percent per 100 rapes (A big difference :-)).

It shows there is some suppression of women crime victims going on - while many bogus charges are indicted, money extracted from the innocent, et cetera.

Sorry for the error

Anonymous said...

Rape conviction rate in Galveston County:
400 reported rapes
5 convictions
conviction rate: 1.25 percent

Rape conviction rate in Manhattan, NYC per reported rape

Anonymous said...

I believe that these bribes over time will actually show a pattern of kickbacks paid per bail set -
In other words the justice system in Bexar County is making a profit frivolous over arrests/indictments

I also believe that many other bail bond companies are involved and it's probably quite systematic - much in the same way that Galveston cops collect payoffs the gas stations operating illegal gambling on every corner. Those who don't pay them off are arrested. This is common knowledge locally.

Anonymous said...

Finally a well written article from the San Antonio Express News about a very important issue---bureaucrats and politicians who receive cash/gifts in exchange for referrals. Bexar County is no stranger to bail bond scandals. Ever since the legislature banned the use of 10% cash bonds as an alternative to commercial bonds, it was only a matter of time before this type of corruption would come to light.

Anonymous said...

This is a Bexar County classic. But what a pity nobody ever introduced Saenz to the Bexar County "Public Pretender" office - surely the only PD office on the planet that has a stated policy of not normally applying for bond for its appellate clients, even if they're eligible for bond. Now there's a scandal. Whoever heard of a PD office that isn't interested in freeing its clients?

Anonymous said...

This problem would be drastically reduced if the local magistrates bothered to follow the law when setting bail.

The law in Texas explicitly states that bails IS NOT A PUNISHMENT. The primary purpose of bail is to ensure the accused person will be available for trail. A person who has lived in the same town for 10 years, works here, has a house and family here... that person will almost certainly be available. The bonds should be very low for locals. This isn't just my opinion, its the law. How can we even think to use a high bond amount as punishment for these people are supposed to be treated as innocent until an actual conviction.

Anonymous said...

It would also be interesting to see how much money the bail bonds companies donate to the judges who set ridiculously high bonds. The discrepancy between bond amounts in counties is staggering. Lots of money to be made in this business but it doesn't seem very fair to the poor who are do not pose 1) A flight risk or 2) A risk of harm to the community but rot in jail to make the bail bonds money.