DA Seeks to Keep Local Bonding Company from Operating

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The district attorney's office is taking action to stop new Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell's former AAAA Bonding Company from operating because of a conflict of interest caused by her husband working for the business and set to take ownership.

District Attorney Jennings Jones also is calling for the forfeiture of $30,000 in bonds that AAAA Bonding wrote for two men who fled the country in 2009 after being arrested on multiple drug charges. The bonding company was granted 14 extensions over more than four years, but those expired July 21 and the bond should be paid, according to the DA's motion filed Sept. 3 with Senior Judge Ben Cantrell in Circuit Court.

In a separate Circuit Court motion also filed Sept. 3 with Judge Cantrell, the DA is seeking to suspend the privileges of AAAA Bonding for writing any bonds or collecting premiums and collateral from previous written bonds.

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A hearing is set for Wednesday in Circuit Court.

MORE INFORMATION FROM THE MURFREESBORO POST:
Based on state law that prohibits clerks and deputy clerks from receiving a direct or indirect benefit from a bonding company, the DA contends that AAAA should have ceased operating after Harrell took office because her husband, Otho Dunaway, is part of the company.

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In an August hearing, Judge Cantrell, who was appointed to the case after all other judges recused themselves, granted a petition by AAAA Bonding to allow Susan Kerr to act as company trustee until Dunaway is qualified to hold ownership.

But Tennessee law restricts the Circuit Court clerk from holding a direct or indirect connection with bonding companies to avoid the potential for conflict of interest because the clerk oversees bail bonding companies to make sure they meet all state guidelines.

The DA's Sept. 3 motion states that Harrell assigned her interest in AAAA Bonding to her husband, Dunaway, and that a trust was set up for Kerr to operate for the benefit of Dunaway. AAAA wrote two bail bonds as surety on Sept. 3 after Harrell took office.

The state contends that even though the trustee was put in place, because Dunaway is the trust's beneficiary, Harrell would benefit indirectly from the company.

The DA's motion asks that the court void the bail bonds for the two cases that AAAA wrote, that AAAA be ordered to return any premiums paid for the bonds, that AAAA be enjoined from acting as surety for additional cases after Sept. 1 and that the company be prohibited from collecting any fees, premiums or collateral from bail bonds made prior to Sept. 1, 2014, without court approval.

AAAA Bonding's attorney, Joel Moseley, could not be reached for comment Thursday. No responses to the DA's motions had been filed with the Circuit Court Clerk's office by Thursday afternoon.

Harrell defeated incumbent Laura Bohling and Lance Jenkins in the May Republican primary, then beat Democrat Avent Lane in the Aug. 7 election. Lane has contended that Harrell should be ineligible to serve in office because of state and local laws.

She filed paperwork Aug. 22 in Circuit Court resigning as an agent for AAAA Bonding Co. and requesting that the criminal court remove her from its list of approved agents, according to court documents. Dunaway filed a similar notice letting the court know that Harrell is no longer associated with the company.

AAAA's attorney Moseley filed a petition Aug. 19 stating that, subject to court approval, Dunaway, an approved agent for AAAA Bonding, had become sole owner of the business and was authorized to act as its agent.

An amended petition was filed later, however, stating that Dunaway does not have "two years' experience writing bail in this state as a full-time qualified agent for a Tennessee professional bonding company in good standing" and that another bonding agent would serve as a trustee until he can take the position.

Because of the contractual obligations AAAA Bonding has with the state, Dunaway conveyed his interest in the company to Kerr as trustee, the amended petition states. She has been an approved agent for 15 years and is willing to take over AAAA, according to the petition.

Dunaway is expected to meet qualifications by Jan. 15, the petition states.

AAAA received bail bond extensions from Circuit Court Judge David Bragg dating back to December 2010 on two brothers, Dane and Charles Culver, who face charges for trying to sell psychedelic-mushroom-laced brownies at Bonnaroo. They fled to the United Kingdom, and according to the latest court papers filed in July, the U.S. Marshal's Service needs more time to complete paperwork on the matter.

The U.S. Department of Justice and Interpol are monitoring both men in England and waiting for warrants from the United States, but the matter is being hampered by case load and staffing levels, according to court documents.

Democratic candidate Lane previously questioned her qualifications because she hadn't satisfied the outstanding bonds at the time of the election, nor had she divested herself of the company.

Lane contended that state law governing eligibility to seek office could have disqualified Harrell from the election on two counts. It states: 1) Those who have a "judgment unpaid" to the nation, state or county are ineligible; and 2) Those "who are defaulters to the treasury at the time of the election" are ineligible, "and the election of any such person shall be void."

Lane also believes Harrell's former company could be in violation of local rules that require bonding companies to update their status in either January or July. Harrell did not change AAAA Bonding's ownership until August.

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AAAA Bonding Co., circuit court, DA, Melissa Harrell
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