OPINION: Gwinnett sheriff’s ‘book bags’? Claim holds only empty words

Newly elected sheriff Keybo Taylor speaks at a press conference at the Gwinnett County Jail on January 1, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Newly elected sheriff Keybo Taylor speaks at a press conference at the Gwinnett County Jail on January 1, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The video seemed damning: Keybo Taylor, a Democratic candidate for sheriff in Gwinnett County, was making the campaign rounds at Anytime Bail Bonding for a get-acquainted visit.

The owners weren’t around, so Taylor was left to sell his candidacy to the office manager. During their discussion, the candidate told her this: “If folks don’t support me, I’m not going to let them bond here. I’m just not going to let them do it.”

It’s not a stretch for an aspiring lawman to stop by a bail bonding company during his rounds. The bail bonding industry and sheriffs have a long-standing symbiotic relationship with each other, kind of like what is shown in National Geographic documentaries, where those little birds eat bugs from the backs of rhinos. As in nature, the sheriffs and bail bonders are generally content with the arrangement — the sheriffs get a steady stream of financial contributions from companies that are beholden to them for licensing. And the firms hopefully get sheriffs who’ll remember who loves them.

So it isn’t surprising that the office manager was alarmed to hear that her company might not be able to carry out its duties unless it supported a particular candidate. She called her boss and they made a copy of the 25-second portion of the conversation from a voice-and motion-activated camera on the wall.

Later, like after 16 months and with the election looming, the owner of Anytime Bail Bonding, a fellow named Scott Hall, texted a copy of the video to GBI Director Vic Reynolds. The GBI sent it to the state attorney general’s office, who in turn told them to go ahead and investigate to see whether this was a case of a candidate trying to extort political donations. That investigation continues.

Taylor, who is Black and a Democrat, won the election last fall, a seismic victory in a county that has long been a white Republican stronghold. And one of the first things Taylor did as sheriff was cut loose Anytime Bail Bonding, calling Hall distrustful.

Keybo Taylor, then a candidate for Gwinnett County sheriff, talks to a bail bond employee, saying "if folks don’t support me, I’m not going to let them bond here. I’m just not going to let them do it.” (Credit: Gwinnett County court document)
Caption
Keybo Taylor, then a candidate for Gwinnett County sheriff, talks to a bail bond employee, saying "if folks don’t support me, I’m not going to let them bond here. I’m just not going to let them do it.” (Credit: Gwinnett County court document)

Credit: Gwinnett County court document

Credit: Gwinnett County court document

Hall later sued and in a court hearing in April, Sheriff Taylor explained, under oath, what he meant by “support.”

Taylor, according to a court transcript, responded, “We have a number of projects that’s going on out in the community, and that was one of the things that I wanted to make sure that, you know, anybody that we were doing business with that we were all on the same page as to what that support actually looked like.”

He used an example of a “book bag drive” for kids going back to school.

Sheriffs often want to spread the good word about themselves, and book bags with “Sheriff Keybo Taylor” emblazoned on them would be another symbiotic win-win: The sheriff could feel good about helping kids in need and little Johnny’s parents might think of the sheriff come election time. And all this largesse would come from businesses like bail bonding companies “supporting” the sheriff.

In the April hearing, Superior Court Judge David Sweat called the case “very troubling.” In fact, he used the word “troubling” five times, according to the transcript. While weighing his decision, Sweat said: “Much evidence points to the sheriff’s making statements as a candidate that those who did not support his candidacy would not be writing bonds and (former Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway, who also testified) confirms what was said by candidate Taylor in the video.”

(Sheriff Taylor says he never said that to his predecessor.)

But then the judge pivoted and ruled for Taylor, saying he would not reinstall Hall’s company. “The sheriff has a great deal of discretion about who can write bonds and who cannot write bonds,” the judge said.

Before he signed off, the judge added, “And I would say, sheriff, you need to kind of reevaluate how you run things …” before adding a final “troubling.”

ExploreOPINION: When a sheriff tries to bail out of a nasty bonding dispute

The larger question in the court battle was the authority of sheriffs to do what they want while overseeing bonding companies versus the firms’ private property rights, which is their certificate to operate and do business. Allowing sheriffs unlimited authority would almost be like giving city councils the power to close down taverns willy-nilly.

Last week, the sheriff and Anytime Bail Bonding settled the lawsuit. Anytime, which does business in some 30 counties, can come back to work in Gwinnett but under a different name. And Scott Hall, who is president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, has to take his name off the Gwinnett version of the company.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, right, addresses the news media at the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office in Lawrenceville as Chief Cleophas Atwater, left, listens on June 29, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, right, addresses the news media at the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office in Lawrenceville as Chief Cleophas Atwater, left, listens on June 29, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The sheriff, in a press conference, declared victory, saying, “Their claim that I attempted to extort money and that I committed perjury were also shown to be false claims.”

Again, the GBI is still investigating.

As to all the good community works that Sheriff Taylor was going to do with “support” from the likes of bonding companies — the book bags, remember?

Well, after the April hearing, and before the settlement, Anytime bonding’s lawyers did an open records request asking for evidence of any such program. They asked the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office for “any type of communications between the Sheriff’s Office and bonding companies, whatsoever, and communications about charities or public service requirements.”

The sheriff’s department employee who handles such requests had to call back to Anytime bonding’s attorneys twice to ask what they wanted, because she wasn’t finding anything.

The sheriff’s employee testified at a hearing in May that she dug in again to the department’s “community services” division, then testified that she “received a response that there were no responsive documents for this request.”

Does that mean … that there’s nothing you all could find that was of the nature of community service requirements for bonding companies to do bonding business,” Anytime’s lawyer Bob Cheeley asked the witness. “Is that a fair statement?”

“Yes,” she said.

The sheriff’s lawyer contends that if the sheriff talked about these programs on the phone, for instance, there would be no such record. Perhaps.

But there was no email, no chart, no letter talking about it. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I reached out to Taylor’s office and received no response.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard R. Sills (Credit: Putnam County Sheriff's Office)
Caption
Putnam County Sheriff Howard R. Sills (Credit: Putnam County Sheriff's Office)

Credit: Putnam County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Putnam County Sheriff's Office

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who twice was the head of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said he used to teach a course for incoming sheriffs. In his course, he had a PowerPoint presentation that went on and on — the Roll Call of Shame, listing 46 sheriffs who’ve gone down in flames over the past 50 years because of some kind of wrongdoing. It’s a warning to the newbie sheriffs to behave.

I asked Sills what he thought when he first saw the video of Taylor seeking support at Anytime Bail Bonding.

“It looked like a damn shakedown to me,” he said with a laugh. “Didn’t it to you?”

“The tape said what it said,” I told him.

“Yes, it does,” he said.

About the Author

ajc.com