@NCCapitol

Bail training law locks out private company

Posted July 3, 2012 5:21 p.m. EDT
Updated July 3, 2012 8:24 p.m. EDT

— Under a bill passed in the closing days of this year's legislative session, lawmakers gave the N.C. Bail Agents Association the exclusive right to conduct training for bondsmen, shutting out a private company that provides similar training. 

"It's a total boon to the bail agents association," said Lynette Thompson, one of the owners of Rockford-Cohen Group, which runs the N.C. Bail Academy, based in Wilson and Wake Forest. 

Thompson and her business partners are urging Gov. Bev Perdue to veto. They say the law is the result of lobbying by the politically influential bail agents association, which doesn't like having a competitor.

A lobbyist for the association said the bill will ensure all bail agents get the same training and quality of information. 

"We don't need mavericks in this business," said Mark Black, the lobbyist. "We need professionals who are highly trained."

Bail agents and their employees post bond for people who are arrested. They ensure people show up for their court dates and are authorized to track and arrest those who abscond.  

According to the N.C. Department of Insurance, which oversees the state's bail agents, only the association and the Rockford-Cohen Group were authorized to offer continuing education courses. Rockford-Cohen began offering classes last year.

Documents provided by the Rockford-Cohen Group show a series of complaints and counter-complaints lodged to the department by one group against the other, each alleging improper conduct. 

Kerry Hall, a spokeswoman for the Department of Insurance, declined to make any officials there available for interview. However, she did say in an e-mail that the department "endorsed the bill because of potential cost-savings and standardization of training among licensed bail bondsmen."

The bill in question, Senate Bill 738, was originally filed as a measure dealing with liability insurance for establishments with Alcohol Beverage Control permits. The House Insurance Committee took the original language out of that bill and dropped in the bail bonds language.

That happened last week, as lawmakers began to wind down their legislative session and shortly after they let it be known that another bill favored by bail agents, which would have limited pretrial release programs, would not make it through the General Assembly this year. 

"Everyone we spoke with said they weren't told there was another (training) provider out there," Thompson said.  

In fact, during the long committee meeting on the topic, lawmakers were told this bill merely codified the existing training regimen.

"It seemed like a way to provide some stability for them," said Rep. W.A. "Winkie" Wilkins, D-Person. He said he didn't recall being told that there was any provider of bail agent training other than the association.

But that likely wouldn't have mattered, he added.

"The general tendency around here has been to go with an association as the group that knows what's going on in a particular business," Wilkins said.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said he knew there was another company but had been told their training was not high quality.

"It was made out to be something where there was something shady and underhanded that the other (private) company was doing," Blust said. 

Thompson said that her business was providing more frequent and more varied training than the association, and offering it at a lower cost.

"They didn't like the competition. It's money to them," she said. Thompson said the bail agents would not have been able to win their legislative victory without the help of powerful legislative allies. 

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee. Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, is the Rules chairman in the House and was hired by the association to handle some of back-and-forth over the bondsmen training issue. Both men recused themselves from deliberations on the matter. 

Black said the association works to make sure that agents are updated on the latest policies and directives issued by the courts. His members are monitored by the Department of Insurance and are required to comply with criminal court rules, making it a very regulated industry. 

"We don't think this should be a for-profit business," he said. 

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue said the governor is reviewing the bill but has not decided what to do with it.