CINCINNATI (TDB) -- The wraps seems to be coming off a closely guarded secret: Feds are reportedly poking around the courthouse to learn if up to $4 million was scammed from the public coffers. Allegedly, the missing money involves forfeited bail bonds that haven't been collected through the court clerk's office in Hamilton County. If true, this is huge. The rumor mill cranked up after U.S. District Judge Michael R. Barrett yesterday placed on hold a civil lawsuit that accused county and state officials of blocking bail bondsmen from soliciting business on the courthouse grounds. While that lawsuit, Case No. 1:10cv285, has nothing to do with the rumored FBI investigation, it indirectly may have played a role by stirring interest in Cincinnati's bail bonding operations.
WKRC-TV, Channel 12 has reportedly been working on an investigative news story about a massive breakdown in procedures to collect forfeited bond money. In Cincinnati, judges set bonds. But if accused criminals skip town or dodge their court dates, bond money is forfeited. The paperwork processing the forfeitures is done in the Hamilton County Clerk of Court's office. At this point, it is not clear if there was an administrative breakdown or corruption. Another possibility: Nothing is amiss, the rumor mill has just gone wild. But the opinion here is that there is more to this than smoke. Reportedly, Democratic officials in Hamilton County are getting ready to file public records requests with Court Clerk Patricia M. Clancy that would seek open documents about bond forfeitures and sums owed to the county. In addition, the Democrats are said to plan on seeking all records showing payments made by bonding companies on forfeitures since Jan. 1, 2009. Interestingly, the Democrats could turn up public records requests made by Channel 12 -- Cincinnati's ABC affiliate -- during the course of any digging done by the TV station. They also might find out what the FBI is up to, if anything.
All this rumor and etc. comes at a time when John Williams, a top aid to Clancy, is running for a seat on the Hamilton County Juvenile Court. Williams is a Republican who has a Democratic opponent. Nobody suggests that Williams has done anything improper. The Daily Bellwether has known Williams for years: His reputation is impeccable, he's always been ethical, he is a square shooter. Williams, a former prosecutor, was the Hamilton County Board of Elections director during some very partisan contests, especially the 2004 Bush v. Kerry contest. He emerged with his reputation intact. But if there really is a scandal about millions of dollars in uncollected bail bond money, the juvenile court judge campaign would be impacted. Political opponents would move quickly to depict Williams and Clancy as asleep at the wheel, or inept. The Daily Bellwether is of the opinion that the efforts to seek records about bail bonds dating back to Jan. 1, 2009 are aimed at Williams and Clancy -- she took over the clerk's office after winning the job in the November 2008 general election.
The flap seems to have its roots in an Ohio Department of Insurance proceeding against A-1 Bail Bonds owner Debra Henneke, who is challenging her bail bondsmen license revocation. Competitors and clerk's officials said she was soliciting business on the courthouse grounds. Henneke fought back. She hired lawyer Robert Newman, and apparently private investigators who reportedly uncovered the irregularities. At least, that's what is being spun around the courthouse and political circles. In his ruling yesterday, U.S. District Judge Barrett said he was temporarily staying out of the litigation to allow bail bondsmen to solicit business from bail bondsmen in the courthouse: "This matter shall be stayed pending the conclusion of state administrative proceedings brought against Debra Henneke."
UPDATE: 10/7 4:22 pm -- CityBeat has heard the rumors, too. Kevin Osborne is reporting that Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke has filed a formal public records request seeking fnancial records about bond foreitures at the GOP controlled courthouse. The Bellwether has heard from two sources today who said there is a federal probe. They also said Channel 12's Jeff Hirsh has been working on the story. I tried to call Hirsh for comment. No luck.