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

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 head of a bail bonding company contended that Gwinnett County’s new sheriff, Keybo Taylor, tried to extort him for political donations. And he has tape.

The sheriff countered that veteran bail bondsman Scott Hall was deceptive and tried to intimidate him with a secret recording and his political connections.

And now with a sudden legal settlement this week, one aspect of their nasty little dispute is behind them and Hall’s company, which had been shut down in the county by the sheriff, is back in business.

But what aspect of this strange tale remains ongoing? The sheriff is being investigated by the GBI on the extortion allegation. He insists he did nothing wrong.

Ah, just another day in the bail bonding business, a sometimes wild and shadowy world, but a politically connected and lucrative industry made famous by Dog the Bounty Hunter. It’s also one that plays a vital role in the legal industry.

“Bail bondsmen and pawn brokers always seemed from the same lot,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who has headed his department for 25 years. “But it provides a valuable service. It is what it is. It makes money as the result of crime.”

The beef between Taylor, the first Black sheriff in Gwinnett County, and Hall, president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, threatened to shake up a comfy relationship between bonding companies and sheriffs. It’s an accord through which sheriffs can get a steady stream of campaign donations and the bail firms make a nice living. This case pitted a sheriff’s authority to do what he wanted with the bonding companies’ private property rights, which is their certificate to operate and do business.

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

Our saga starts in April 2019, more than a year before the election for sheriff. Taylor, a Black Democrat, was in good stead because Gwinnett’s shifting demographics indicated strongly that someone like him might do very well in the longtime Republican stronghold.

Taylor was making the rounds and introducing himself when he came upon Hall’s business, Anytime Bail Bonding, a firm that lets potential arrestees know it’ll be there when needed, even if it’s 3 a.m.

While talking with Anytime’s office manager, Taylor said 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.”

After hearing that, the office manager called her boss and they recorded a 25-second portion of the seemingly damning video. The video came from a voice-and motion-activated camera on the wall. It’s set up there because I imagine those in the bail industry want to keep track of all sorts of stuff.

The sheriff has contended repeatedly that he was not seeking contributions. He says he simply wanted local businesses to kick in for “social service projects” once he was wearing the badge. For instance, getting bookbags for kids. That sort of thing.

Candidate Taylor somehow found out about Hall’s tape because even though Gwinnett is closing in on a million residents, it’s apparently not that big a county.

The two men met last September at Frankie’s in Duluth, a steakhouse where you can experience a $91 filet. After an hour of small talk and fine dining, Hall told Taylor he needed to “throw the skunk on the table” and get to the meat of the matter, so to speak. That is, they discussed the tape.

Gwinnett County sheriff candidate Keybo Taylor speaks at a "Get Out The Early Vote" event at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on October 24, 2020. He was elected sheriff in November. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Gwinnett County sheriff candidate Keybo Taylor speaks at a "Get Out The Early Vote" event at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on October 24, 2020. He was elected sheriff in November. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Now, the two of them, both while under oath, remember the conversation differently. (The court case came about in April because Taylor, in one of his first acts as sheriff, suspended — then later revoked — Hall’s license to write bonds in Gwinnett. )

During the steakhouse dinner, Taylor said Hall told him that he didn’t make a complaint with the GBI, but that one of his employees had turned over the tape. The sheriff later testified that he was eventually told by a GBI agent that it was Hall who started the investigation.

In a court transcript, Hall was asked by the sheriff’s lawyer, “Isn’t it true that you told Sheriff Taylor that you didn’t want the case to be presented to the GBI, at all, and you didn’t feel that you were being extorted, at all?”

“No, I did not,” he responded. Hall later testified that he told Taylor that he would not be forced to support any candidate. Still, he then handed the candidate a check for a campaign donation. The amount has been reported to be $2,500. Taylor did not cash the check and said he did not seek or get donations from any bonding companies. He later added that he was unsure if he got money from bonding company employees.

Why did Hall hand him a check? Was he hoping to get in good graces with the sheriff? Or was he hoping to make the GBI’s case better, with the sheriff taking a donation? Well, he’s no longer talking, hoping that this mess blows over. His company, which operates in 30 counties, will change its name in Gwinnett and he will take his name off the masthead there.

Taylor, in a statement released Tuesday about the settlement, said he won in court during a hearing in April, and said “the judge stated in a ruling” that there was evidence of “deceitful and dishonest practices” on the part of the bail bonding company. “Their claim that I attempted to extort money and that I committed perjury were also shown to be false claims,” Taylor said.

Actually, the sheriff is being generous — to himself — in his legal determination. In April, Superior Court Judge David Sweat called the case “very troubling,” saying: “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.”

But then the judge pivoted and ruled for the sheriff, 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.

Hall’s team pushed forward the lawsuit and was set to question Taylor under oath on Monday, the day when the settlement was announced.

Thomas Brown, a contributor and adviser to Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, is seen here in August 2012, when Brown was DeKalb County sheriff. (KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC file photo)
Caption
Thomas Brown, a contributor and adviser to Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, is seen here in August 2012, when Brown was DeKalb County sheriff. (KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC file photo)

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Tom Brown, the former sheriff of DeKalb County, who has contributed to Taylor and has advised him, asserts that sheriffs have “unfettered” power in determining who writes bonds in their counties.

(Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said there is some fettering. He told me that courts have ruled having a business license to write bonds is like owning property and should not be summarily taken away.)

Brown said part of the conflict here is a sea change, with several new African American sheriffs taking power and the “hit dog is now screaming.”

“The relationship between the sheriffs and bonding companies was a good-ol’-boy system,” he said. “It’s a new day in Georgia, not a bad day. A new day.”

I also spoke with former Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison, who had some advice: “The key is a sheriff should not be soliciting (bail bondsmen) because it has a hint of impropriety. Just don’t open that door.”

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