Aggressive tactics led to bail bond agent ban
Agents restricted from public areas in Dakota County Jail
Dakota County Jail officials have restricted bail bond agents from public areas of the jail after their arguments and aggressive sales tactics fueled myriad complaints.
Some bail agents say the changes have dramatically reduced their income and question why all were targeted when a few caused the problems.
Jail officials say the new restrictions banning bail agents from the jail lobby and in-custody courtroom have solved problems, improved the public jail environment, and they have no plans to change.
Bail bond agents for years crowded into Dakota County’s in-custody courtroom and increasingly began aggressively competing for business, Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said.
“Over the years, there have been many complaints,” Dakota County Jail Lt. Jodi Rolloff said.
Tension grew to the point of fighting over clients, according to Dakota County Jail Cmdr. John Grant.
He said bond agents would arrive to the jail hours before a newly-arrested inmate’s first scheduled court appearance and approach their friends or relatives as they entered the jail lobby trying to sell them bail bonds.
Most of the chairs in the cramped in-custody courtroom were filled with bail agents working to generate clients, he said.
Jennifer Ahlberg, a bonding agent for 25 years, said the business has become highly competitive because what was a handful of bond companies have blossomed into about 40 different ones, all competing for fewer bonds being issued.
Competition is particularly fierce in Dakota County courts, because they typically set high bail amounts, Ahlberg said, and county residents tend to have the money, making them a better insurance risk.
Bail bond agents work on commission, and sometimes establish relationships with attorneys who recommend them to their clients, said Teresa Cover, a bail bond agent who works in Dakota County.
Ahlberg and Cover, competing bail agents, said another female bond agent who frequented the jail lobby was “overzealous” in her pursuit of clients, in part by wearing suggestive clothing and allegedly flaunted herself to attract attention and commissions.
Cover and a Dakota County correctional officer who asked not to be identified, said the agent’s outfits included thigh-high boots and mini skirts; once she came to write a bond wearing a bikini top and shorts.
“Her dress was offensive to most females,” Cover said.
Rolloff said jail staff also complained about the bond agent’s clothing.
“They were like, look what she’s wearing out there,” Rolloff said. “They didn’t think it was right that they come to jail looking like that. We don’t even allow our visitors to come to the jail like that; they have to be appropriately dressed to come to the jail to visit inmates.”
Cover said the agent’s actions were “graphic” and caused increasing tension among the agents.
Rolloff said she did not know the purpose for the dress, but it is “common practice” in some jails for some bond agents to offer kick-backs or reduced rates to inmates who distribute their business cards to other inmates.
She said she does not think that kind of soliciting was occurring in the Dakota County Jail.
Ahlberg said she has heard of bail bond companies using inmates to solicit business for them, but “it’s very illegal.”
“Do I think it was happening in Dakota County with this certain company?” she said. “Yes. I just think bondsman get to know people … maybe a correctional officer will say their name.”
Agents like Ahlberg and Cover who said they work to follow the rules grew frustrated with the activities of some other agents.
Over time, tension grew and agents increasingly struggled to compete; some would interrupt each other during conversations with potential clients, Grant said.
“A bail bond agent would be talking to someone, and another would butt right in and say: ‘If you need a good bail bond agent, use me,’ ” Grant said. “So the two bail bond agents would get into a verbal argument. Basically, there were fights over clients.”
Bellows said the situation was “getting out of hand.”
In the jail lobby, agents sat on tables and chairs, offering information and bail bond services to those who appeared to be an inmate’s relative.
Grant said his parents were solicited in July 2009 when they arrived to witness Grant’s swearing-in ceremony in the jail.
“They thought it was funny,” Grant said. “I said you have to be kidding me.”
An official complaint was filed with the Minnesota Judicial Branch in 2011 against a bail bond agent, said John Kostouros, director of court information.
Kostouros said after an investigation, the complaint was dismissed because they were unable to corroborate its claims.
Statewide, his agency received six complaints against bond agents regarding incidents in Minnesota courts in 2010 and eight complaints in 2011. Prior to that, the agency did not have a complaint system, he said.
No complaints specific to Dakota County have been reported to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, but the department stated since 2010, it has investigated allegations of bail bond agents paying inmates to refer business, failure to report criminal proceedings, unlicensed activity and providing incorrect or misleading information on application, according to the department.
To address issues at the Dakota County Jail, Grant said they held meetings with the bond agents and initially restricted them from the in-custody courtroom.
Complaints slowed, but eventually revived, until about 18 months ago, when Dakota County officials restricted bail bond agents from the jail lobby or courtroom.
Agents may go to the jail to meet clients who have contacted them by phone and made an appointment, Bellows said.
Stew Peters, owner of Guaranteed Freedom Bail Bonds, said the ban has cost him about half his business.
He expressed frustration that the county punished everyone for the actions of a few.
“The Sheriff’s Office and jail administration were unwilling to do their due diligence to find out who was creating the problem and have their license pulled,” Peters said. “Instead, they blanketed the entire industry … as if we all were causing problems.”
Some bail bond agents have established the Minnesota Professional Bail Bond Association to seek better bail bond conditions.
According to the website, www.mnpbba.com, they are fighting to secure court appearances with bail bonds instead of state-funded pretrial release programs and promoting professionalism in the bail bond industry.
The organization seeks to demonstrate how helpful bonding companies are and work toward consistent bond reinstatement conditions in all Minnesota counties.
It is seeking mandatory testing and continuing education classes for bond agent licensing and renewal.
Bellows said there are good bond agents who have developed strong, positive ties with county jail administration.
“There are some good people in there,” Bellows said. “They are like used car salesmen, just trying to make a living, but the environment can be tough,.”
He said in making the restrictions, their concern was not for the bail bond agents, but for the visitors.
“Citizens going through the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office have a right not to be approached for this kind of stuff,” he said.
The changes that have happened over the last six months to a year, he said have “been pretty good.”
“When I get complaints, I direct resources,” Bellows said.