When John Grant's parents came to visit him at the Dakota County jail, they were immediately approached by bonding agents asking if they needed help in getting a loved one out by posting bail.
The question was not only illegal, but ill-advised: These parents were there not to see an inmate, but to witness Dakota County Sheriff's Cmdr. John Grant's promotion to take over operations at the Hastings facility.
Last summer's incident with Grant's parents was far from an isolated instance of bail bond agents behaving badly. It was part of a long list of questionable and at times illegal actions by agents in Dakota County, authorities and agents say.
"That was sort of the icing on the cake," Grant said recently. "If Mom and Dad couldn't walk in here without being hit up ... I said, this is ridiculous."
Over the past few years, according to Grant and others, there have been numerous complaints about the behavior of bail bond reps. Among their objectionable actions were soliciting business in the jail or in courtrooms, wearing or displaying company logos, asking jailers to recommend their services, and charging less than the 10 percent mandated by law. All are considered illegal.
There also were complaints of fights, loud arguments, client stealing and a female agent wearing provocative and inappropriate clothing.
Almost always, the complaints came from the agents themselves as they vied for more business. Agents work on commissions and their companies keep the 10 percent cash needed to post bail for a defendant in custody.
"They would snitch on each other," Grant said. "I was receiving texts, phone messages, e-mails. Things got heated."
The complaints ranged from the illegal solicitation of business and the wearing of company advertising on clothes to crowding out the public from the bail courtroom and subtly letting defendants know the agents were available.
"They would be in the courtroom and they would flash their cards, hold up their logos to solicit business," Grant said.
All of which is illegal.
The offense that caused the most trouble, and which ultimately led to the bail reps being kicked out of jail areas, was the inappropriate dress and behavior of a female bonding agent who dressed provocatively to attract clients and thus write more bonds.
"It was extreme," said Teresa Cover, an agent with Thomas Bail Bonds in Buffalo who often works in Dakota County. "She would go to any length to get a bond -- and I don't say that lightly."
That behavior led to disagreements, screaming matches, complaints and eventually to bail agents being banned from the courtroom and public areas at the county jail. Agents are still permitted to see clients who call them for services.
"There were inappropriate things going on that needed to be addressed," said Stew Peters, president of Guaranteed Freed Bail Bonds of Minneapolis, who bonds in all counties but described Dakota County as his "bread and butter."
That changed abruptly last fall when Sheriff Dave Bellows decided enough was enough and banned bail bond agents from the courtroom and the public areas of the jail.
"Things have gotten a lot better," Bellows said recently. "I didn't want this to be an open market for soliciting business. I think everybody was struggling with it to some degree."
The change in Dakota County has brought it more in line with the practices of other jails in the metro area. Hennepin County, for example, has a countywide ban on soliciting any business in its buildings, including the jail and courts.
"It's not been an issue," said Major Jeff Storms, an administrator at the Hennepin County jail in downtown Minneapolis. "People are still being bailed out."
In Ramsey County, a judge issued an order in 2006 banning bail bond agents from soliciting business in courtrooms or adjacent areas, including the lobby area. The order was granted, it states, because the court was "concerned with security issues at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center," located just northeast of downtown St. Paul.
Agents can be outside
Bail agents are allowed to solicit business outside the buildings, so long as they are not impeding normal traffic.
"There's a definite role for [bail agents] in the process, as long as people don't get in the way," said Randy Gustafson, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the jail. "That could be what prompted Dakota County to issue a new policy."
The Dakota County decision has not set well with Peters and other bonding agents, who claim they have lost about half their business and revenue as a result of not having easy access to clients. "At least half," Cover said when asked how much business she has lost from the ban.
Grant and Bellows said they have no plans to lift the ban.
"Things have gotten a lot better," Grant said. "Our issues have all but gone away."
Peters and Cover said the sheriff overreacted by banning all agents instead of investigating to see who was causing problems and dealing with them on an individual basis.
"I agree that the sheriff needed to take action," Peters said. "But they're blanketing an entire industry. It gives people like me a bad name. We're all grownups. This isn't kindergarten, where the whole class should go on a timeout because someone is acting out."
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281