Fired Dalton Judge questions city motives

Fired Dalton Judge questions city motives

September 23rd, 2010 by Pam Sohn and Joy Lukachick Smith in News

A city judge who was fired this week from Dalton, Ga., Municipal Court, and the owners of a company that collected forfeited bail bonds, say they see politics at work.

Former judge Jerry Moncus was fired and court administrator David Hamil was forced to resign Monday, after the city ordered LST Recovery Group Inc. to stop collecting forfeited bonds on behalf of the city.

Moncus said he thinks the firings came because he and Hamil opposed a courts merger Mayor David Pennington and the City Council support.

Unpaid bond judgments

A-Bail Bonding Co.: 19,556

AGV Bonding: 22,682

Dalton Bail Bonds: 27,660

Individuals: 41,062

Recently collected judgments

Cohutta Bonding Co.: 4,212

Source: Dalton Municipal Court and LST Recovery Group

"There's been an underlying attempt to merge the [county] magistrates and city court, and both myself and Hamil were adamantly opposed to it. I don't think it will be beneficial to the citizens," Moncus said.

Pennington and Councilwoman Denise Wood said the judge and Hamil were fired because of a possible link between Moncus and LST Recovery Group.

"We weren't aware the collection agency was owned by several people in the court. It didn't appear a good protocol. You don't want to ever have an impression of a conflict of interest," Wood said, noting that "some bonding agencies brought it to our attention."

Dalton contracted with LST in October 2009. Moncus said he is not connected to the company or related to anyone in it, an allegation levied Wednesday by the city officials.

He said LST is a spin-off of a collection agency he does own called LMST Recovery Group Inc. LMST does not do business with the city.

LST is owned by Joshua Smith, Leonardo Lechuga and Randy Tatum, who are partners with Moncus in LMST.

Smith said Wednesday that LST was formed after Hamil, the court administrator, asked him to form the separate company specifically so there would be no connection to Moncus, the judge.

Hamil could not be reached for comment.

Moncus said LST has collected thousands of dollars for the city on outstanding bonds owed by two of the city's six bonding companies and obtained judgments against three others.

That was money the city wasn't seeing before, Lechuga said. And it's been owed for years.

"Why did the city really break this contract, if we collected $18,000 [in bond arrears] already. ... And it didn't cost the city a dime. If we didn't collect, we didn't get paid," Lechuga said.

A city court spokeswoman on Wednesday confirmed that records show there have been no collections from three of the city's six bonding companies since 2006.

"Bonding company owners are usually influential people," Lechuga said. "When we began to levy on (bonding companies') bank accounts, the next thing you know, we were told to stop collecting. ... But the city didn't turn down the money. They cashed the checks (from the city's 70 percent of each collection.)"

Vaughn Dalrymple, an agent with Cohutta Bonding Co., said he had no knowledge of bond company owners complaining to the council. He said the company's owner could not be reached for comment. Other bond company officials did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Pennington, who signed the contract with LST, now says he doesn't think it's a legal contract. The name on the contract is LST Recovery Group Inc., but the company name is listed on the Secretary of State's certificate of organization as LST Recovery Group LLC.

"We're not alleging they did anything illegal, but we wanted to take the court in a different direction," he said Wednesday.

Moncus termed it "ridiculous" that city officials claimed not to know LST was a spinoff of his agency, LMST.

Smith said he made a special call to the Georgia Bar Association's Ethics Hotline to see if there would be a problem for him to be part of the company while also being a public defender contracted hourly by the city.

"The court's work is with criminal defendants. The collections are not for criminal fines, they are for civil fines and probation forfeitures," Smith said.

Smith said the Bar Association told him he had no problem, and he even set up a database to be sure none of the forfeitures the company collected involved people he had defended. Nonetheless, he said, he pulled out of LST about two months ago because he wanted more time to work on his law practice.

Moncus said the city appointed a committee some months ago to examine the courts merger issue. The committee presentation to the council was that it was not a good idea.

"City court is totally self-sustaining. The revenue pays for the expense of the court," he said.

"What I want to know is why someone won't force (the bonding companies) to pay (forfeited bonds)," he said.