By Chelcey Adami, Salinas Californian
Monterey County bail agent Veronica Melero has been arrested in Operation Bail Out, a multi-county sweep targeting those suspected of paying inmates to get information on newly booked inmates and thereby steal business away from competitors.
Law enforcement from the California Department of Insurance and the Santa Clara County District Attorneys’ Office arrested bail agents working for seven companies in Santa Clara, Alameda, Monterey, San Benito and Merced counties in the sweep that began last Thursday.
As of Monday afternoon, 30 are in custody and one is arranging to surrender. Melero was the only bail agent arrested from Monterey County, according to the Department of Insurance.
The operation came after years of investigation that uncovered schemes by bail agents to take business away from competitors by rewarding jail inmates with money added to their jail accounts for providing information about newly booked individuals in the jails, according to the Department of Insurance.
Tony Diaz of Tony Diaz Bail Bonds in Salinas has been working in the business for 40 years and said as business has dropped some, he has suspected illegal practices by other businesses for some time.
“We were damaged some way or another by these agencies, and it doesn’t feel very good,” he said. “We’ve been a locally owned business for 40 years, and others have come in owned by corporations. Their practices of doing bail are, well, the ethics are not very good.”
The seven bail agencies involved in the sweep included Aladdin Bail Bonds, Luna Bail Bonds, All-Pro Bail Bonds, Pacific Coast Bail Bonds, Veronica Melero Bail Bonds, Le Bail Bonds, and Bail Hotline.
“Bail agents play an important role in our criminal justice system, which should be free from corruption,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones in a prepared statement. “Complaints against bail agents for unfair business practices and alleged illegal activity have been increasing steadily. These arrests and license suspensions should serve as a warning to any bail agent skirting the law that it won’t be tolerated.”
The sweep is the largest enforcement action involving bail agents ever conducted by the Department of Insurance, which provides licenses to bail agents in California.
The department immediately suspended the licenses of all 31 bail agents identified in the enforcement action, and they are no longer allowed to serve as bail agents or transact bail business.
The investigation, which included 15 search warrants, about 100,000 digital recordings and 50 witness and bail agent interviews, also revealed evidence of the illegal use of unlicensed individuals to transact bail and a bail agency employing a convicted felon as a bounty hunter, a violation of the Bail Fugitive Recovery Act.
The Santa Clara District Attorney is prosecuting the cases.
“We are committed to hold accountable those who illegally undermine a system that is set up to ensure a defendant’s presence in the courtroom and protect the public,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen in a statement.
And the bail agents were warned.
In 2013, the department sent a letter to all licensed bail agents noting complaints the department was receiving throughout the state and reminding bail agents of their obligation to follow all laws and regulations.
Rosen also sent a letter warning all South Bay bail agents within his county to follow the letter of law.
As complaints about alleged illegal business practices by bail agents have increased, the Department of Insurance requires additional resources to investigate, the department added in a press release.
Assembly Bill 1406 aims to give the Department of Insurance and district attorneys more resources to hold the more than 3,000 bail agents in the state accountable, and Jones hopes that the Assembly Appropriations Committee will allow a successor bill to move forward next year, according to the Department of Insurance.
Some are taking the news as a sign that the system as a whole should change.
“Today’s mass arrest underscores why Governor Brown should act to replace cash bail in California with detention based on risk,” wrote Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of Pretrial Justice Institute, in a prepared statement. “Put simply — risk, and never money, should be the only deciding factor on who we incarcerate before trial.”
The median cash bail amount in California is five times the national average, and the majority of people can’t afford bail, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute.
“Many of the bail bondsmen caught in this sting have already been able to afford their own cash bail amounts — likely through their own bonding companies,” Burdeen added. “Sadly, this is not the case for many poor, low-risk defendants who often remain in jail for days, weeks and even years simply for lack of funds.”