Gwinnett sheriff: Request for bond company support was not extortion

Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, pictured as a candidate at a get-out-the-vote rally, said he canceled a bond company's ability to operate in the county because of dishonesty regarding a GBI investigation and not a failed extortion attempt. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) AJC FILE PHOTO
Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, pictured as a candidate at a get-out-the-vote rally, said he canceled a bond company's ability to operate in the county because of dishonesty regarding a GBI investigation and not a failed extortion attempt. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

At a Duluth steakhouse last September, the Democratic nominee for Gwinnett County sheriff met with the head of a bail bond company.

Keybo Taylor had visited the company, Anytime Bail Bonding, in April 2019. Then, he talked to Jo Anna Petropoulos, the company’s office manager, as he was campaigning to become sheriff — a job the Democrat was elected to in November.

Security footage from the meeting shows Taylor saying, “if folks don’t support me, I’m not gonna let them bond here.”

“That’s the reason why everybody that I’ve gone to I’m like, ‘Hey, go on and do your research, research me out, research out my opponent, and then make the decision on what you want to do,’” Taylor said in the video.

The 25-second video clip is at the heart of an extortion investigation into Taylor, who shut down Anytime Bail Bonding and five other bonding companies shortly after taking office. But distrust that stemmed from the dinner at Frankie’s Steakhouse is the reason Anytime Bail Bonding is no longer operating in Gwinnett, Taylor said in Gwinnett Superior Court — not a failure of its executives to support his candidacy.

In a statement, Taylor said he couldn’t comment extensively on the bail bonding companies because of ongoing litigation. But he said he is “holding each company to the highest standards to ensure that the citizens of Gwinnett County are getting constitutional and fair treatment.”

Taylor’s unannounced 2019 visit to Petropoulos’ office, and the perceived threat, made Petropoulos uncomfortable, she said in Superior Court earlier this year, according to a trial transcript.

“I couldn’t believe somebody said that they would shut us down if we didn’t support them,” she said.

Petropoulos said she was shocked by Taylor’s request. After he left, she called her boss to report the incident, and the security camera footage was saved.

“He was threatening us, sort of,” she said. “If you don’t vote for me, I’m going to shut you down.”

Scott Hall, one of the owners of Anytime Bail Bonding, said in court he was very concerned when he saw the video, which he said showed a candidate for Gwinnett’s top law enforcement job “basically demanding money from a company.”

He sent the clip to the head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The GBI opened an investigation into Taylor’s “possible extortion attempt” Sept. 14, a spokesperson said, at the behest of the office of the attorney general. A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to comment. The GBI’s investigation is ongoing.

‘This is my house’

Was Hall being extorted?

“Well, the facts are simple that I did not support him and I’m not in business,” Hall said. “...He basically said, ‘If you don’t support me, you’re not going to bond here,’ and I’m not bonding here.”

Taylor disputed that was the reason he shut down Anytime Bail Bonding, according to the trial transcript, saying it was Hall’s deception that caused him to shutter the company.

At that September dinner at Frankie’s in Duluth, Taylor said, Hall told him that not only was the surveillance video a non-issue — but that he would contact the GBI director and “get this thing taken care of.” In reality, Hall had been the one to forward the video and launch the investigation, a GBI agent told Taylor late last year.

Taylor said he took Hall’s comments to mean Hall planned to use his connection to quash the case — something Taylor said made him uncomfortable. At the dinner, Hall offered Taylor a check, though Taylor said he didn’t cash it.

For him, Taylor said, support was never intended to be monetary.

“The only thing that I’ve asked for and which I have been consistent with is, is that if I have projects that are going on out here, I expect people in the business community to support me,” he said.

He used as an example social service programs, like a book bag drive for county schools.

If Hall had been honest about the fact that he had made the complaint, Taylor said, he would still be in business. But state law requires a professional bondsperson to be “a person of good moral character” and Taylor said he no longer believed that Hall was one.

“My main problem with Mr. Hall was the fact that he was dishonest with me,” Taylor said. “... And, you know, if he would sit there and lie to me about those situations there before we even get into office, I don’t trust Mr. Hall to operate a business here in Gwinnett County for the citizens of Gwinnett County.”

Taylor sent a letter to Anytime Bail Bonding Jan. 1, saying he was suspending the company’s ability to write bonds. Two weeks later, he canceled it.

At an internal hearing in February, Hall said, he still didn’t know why he’d been cut off. When asked, Hall said the sheriff told him, “this is my house and we play by my rules” before ending the meeting.

Taylor said he shouldn’t have said “this is my house,” but meant it as a rebuke to what he described as an adversarial and derogatory tone from Hall’s lawyers. His point, he said, was to tell the group “we’re not going to act like that in here.”

Hall sued to force the sheriff to allow him to keep operating, as did several other companies that ceased to operate in Gwinnett following similar letters. The companies claimed Taylor shut down their bail bond companies because owners did not donate to his election campaign.

Taylor maintains that what bond companies can operate in the county is his prerogative. In court, Judge David Sweat agreed.

But he said he found the case “very troubling,” even if Taylor did have the authority.

“And I would say, Sheriff, you need to kind of re-evaluate how you run things,” Sweat said.

How we got the story

To piece together the timeline of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry into Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, and the accusations against him, AJC reporter Arielle Kass watched the 25-second video that began the probe. She read multiple lawsuits and reached out to the GBI, attorneys and others. This story is largely based on a 276-page trial transcript from April, when Taylor was in Gwinnett County Superior Court defending his actions against Anytime Bail Bonding. That company sued to force Taylor to allow them to continue to operate in Gwinnett.