The Dallas Morning News - EDITORIAL - December 26, 2011
A bail bondsman’s operation is one that the general public seems happy to know little about. It’s a world of lowlife situations, jail cells, police and trouble — stuff that most of us try to stay as far away from as possible. But ignorance definitely isn’t bliss when bondsmen’s abuses of the legal system cost taxpayers millions of dollars. As Dallas Morning News staff writers Ed Timms and Kevin Krause reported last week, a powerful lobby representing Texas bail bondsmen has, for years, pushed through legislation in Austin that allows them to artificially manipulate the value of property they use as collateral on bail bonds. This unethical nonsense must stop. Courts typically allow arrested people to get out of jail until trial by posting a bail bond backed by collateral property owned by the bondsman. It’s in the bondsman’s interest to cite the highest valuation possible for this property, since the system allows him to post 10 times that value to cover clients’ bail. And, of course, he profits from the percentage his clients must pay him in return. Higher property values should mean higher taxes for the bondsman. But the bail-bond lobby in Austin, with its generous campaign contributions, has won wide leeway from the Legislature to manipulate the appraisal process. These properties are allowed by law to have two values — one set by a private appraiser hired by the bail bondsman for bail-posting purposes and the other set by the county central appraisal district for taxation. Dallas County is typical of a statewide bail-bond system rife with abuse as bondsmen play both sides. The private appraiser inflates the property value to help the bondsman’s business, but when it comes to the county’s appraisal, unethical bondsmen have histories of filing multiple protests to get the valuation reduced to a fraction of the private appraiser’s estimate. They are gaming the system at your expense, especially because, if the arrested person skips bail or the bondsman goes bankrupt, the collateral becomes the government’s property. What appears on paper to be very valuable can turn out to be junk. You, the taxpayer, wind up footing the bill when the government gets stuck with that property. When bondsmen pay far less than they should in property taxes, you, in effect, pay the difference. Don’t be surprised. This is just the latest in a series of reports by Timms and Krause on how bondsmen are abusing the system while county regulators either look the other way or are legally powerless to take action. It’s doubtful that the bondsmen will grow a conscience and self-correct. The Legislature created this mess, and it’s up to lawmakers to fix it. Among key findings of The Dallas Morning News investigation: In order to avoid forfeiting collateral property, bondsmen falsely claim rearrest of clients who jumped bail; courts do little to verify claims. Current and former bondsmen and attorneys authorized to write bonds owed the county $35 million in unpaid judgments. The county lacks a system to track bond forfeiture cases to make sure final judgments are paid on time. Until recently, Dallas County was charging bondsmen interest-free, bargain rates for fees owed when clients jumped bail. Judges and the district attorney’s office have been letting bondsmen off the hook for court judgments against them, often without explanation.