JASPER, Tenn. — The former boss of a bail agent charged with soliciting sex for writing a bond testified Friday he'd never had a complaint about the agent's behavior and that he fired the man as soon as he learned of the charge.
Cumberland Bail Bonding Co. owner Andy Baggenstoss was in Marion County Circuit Court hoping Judge Thomas Graham would thaw the freeze local judges imposed on his bonding business after the Feb. 8 arrest of ex-Cumberland agent Kelvin Pell.
Marion County deputies arrested Pell on Feb. 8 after setting up a sting operation. A woman agreed to wear a wire, and listening lawmen heard Pell talk to her about paying him with sex for writing her bond. Deputies arrested Pell and charged him with patronizing prostitution and sexual battery.
What really aggravated the 12th Judicial District judges was Pell telling the deputies it was "common practice" in the bonding industry to write bonds in exchange for sex. They suspended Cumberland and Baggenstoss' two other Marion companies, A and A Plus Bonding until, as Graham put it, "we can be sure this never happens again."
Graham set Friday's hearing to discuss the incident and hear from the Cumberland owner.
"This kind of conduct does shock the conscience of the court," Graham said.
Mike Taylor, 12th Judicial District attorney, took Marion County investigators Chad Johnson and Matt Blansett through the sting operation, the arrest, with Pell nude from the waist down in a local motel room, and Pell's admission to Blansett that this wasn't the first time he'd sought sex for writing a bond.
"I'd had complaints on him for the last couple of years," Blansett said. During the interview, he said, "He was cooperative. He knew he'd been caught. I don't think he thought he was doing anything wrong."
Both investigators said they knew of a 2015 incident in which police in Jasper, Tenn., received a complaint about Pell pressing a bond client for sex. Both testified they hadn't contacted Baggenstoss at any point about the complaints.
Baggenstoss' attorneys, Steve Greer and Russell Anne Swafford, objected repeatedly to the investigators' testimony as hearsay, "double hearsay" and even "rank hearsay," but Graham overruled them.
They objected again, unsuccessfully, when Taylor asked the detectives about the "commissary accounts" set up so families can deposit money for jail inmates to use to buy snacks and supplies.
Johnson said he had found 107 incidents in which Pell put money in commissary accounts for inmates. The average was about $15, he said. He'd never heard of any other bail agent putting money in an inmate's account and had no idea why one would, he said.
After the hearing, Taylor said he asked the detectives about that because he wanted Graham to hear it. The information was just a few days old, he said. It could be speculated the agent was doing favors in hopes of referrals when the inmates were released, he said, but there's no evidence of that at this point.
The issue for Greer and Swafford was whether Baggenstoss knew of his agent's alleged misbehavior and what he did when he learned of it. Local court rules require the judges be notified immediately if a bail agent is arrested.
Baggenstoss said neither Pell nor the sheriff's office called him about the arrest; he learned about it when the Times Free Press called the next day, Feb. 9, seeking comment. Baggenstoss called the court administrators for instruction and sent a registered letter Monday asking the judges to revoke Pell's bonding authority.
Taylor asked Baggenstoss if he'd heard complaints about Pell from any source whatsoever.
"I know the bail bonding industry, and you pick up information from places other than police officers," Taylor said.
No, Baggenstoss said, and any hint that it's common practice for bail agents to seek sex for writing bonds is "false, and close to slander."
Greer argued the Cumberland owner did everything he should as soon as he found out, contacting the court and firing the bondsman. Freezing the businesses wrongly transfers the guilt from Pell to Baggenstoss, he said.
Graham wasn't buying it.
"The employer-employee relationship is what we're looking at," he said, noting the company's ethical rules don't say not to have sex with clients.
"Don't you think it would be a good idea for them to know what they should and should not do?" he asked Baggenstoss.
He also said Baggenstoss' letter to the courts only asked for Pell's authority to be revoked. It didn't say he'd been arrested, the judge said.
"You did not comply with the rule. The notice is not the notice required," he said.
Baggenstoss said that was his fault, and he apologized to the judge.
After hearing from both sides, Graham said he expected to issue a ruling within a few days.
Outside court, Baggenstoss said he is "anxiously awaiting a fair and just ruling from Judge Graham and anxious to get our folks in Marion County back to work."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.