By Tim Eberly
The Montana Auditor's Office has issued an order to revoke a former Havre resident's bail bonding license this month, saying she and one of her employees broke the law while doing their jobs.
On Jan. 4, State Auditor John Morrison issued the decision about Debra Nesbitt's license to issue bonds, saying she coerced "an individual to pay her regarding a bail bond issue and by improperly withholding the money," according to a press release from the Auditor's Office. Morrison also said Nesbitt violated the law by using an unlicensed employee, 42-year-old Lynn LaTray, to conduct bonding transactions.
Nesbitt, who was also fined $2,500, has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Auditor's Office. In the meantime, Nesbitt will retain her license unless she loses her appeal.
"I'm going to fight it," said Nesbitt, the owner of J.D.'s Bail Bonds, a business she has run out of her Wolf Point home since August. "I'm going to take it to court."
Nesbitt, 45, said she has already served her punishment. On Dec. 6, 2000, Nesbitt pleaded guilty to misdemeanor intimidation in Hill County District Court and was sentenced to one year of probation. She was also ordered to pay $3,330 in restitution.
"It's already been to court," Nesbitt said. "I don't understand it."
Wendy Raney, a spokeswoman for the Auditor's Office, said the office's action against Nesbitt is a separate civil action prompted by the intimidation conviction, as well as LaTray's activity. "This office has an obligation to protect the public. We're not out to punish Debra Nesbitt but simply out to protect consumers."
Nesbitt's conviction, and the subsequent revocation of her license, stemmed from an incident in the parking lot of Gary & Leo's IGA on July 25, 2000. Earlier that day, Nesbitt had called a young woman, Fontana Smith, claiming a person Smith had posted bond for had jumped bail, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. Days earlier, Smith had provided the title of her 1993 Dodge Spirit as security for a bond, the charging document said.
During their phone conversation, Nesbitt told Smith she had one hour to provide the $3,330 bond money in cash, the complaint said. The two women then arranged to meet outside the grocery store.
The man in question, however, had not jumped bail, as he had more than two weeks before his scheduled court appearance, documents said.
In the parking lot, Nesbitt coerced the money from Smith by "whipping out badges and telling (Smith) that she was a bounty hunter with federal authority," said court documents.
Nesbitt threatened to repossess Smith's vehicle and issue a warrant for her arrest if she did not come up with the money, the document said. Smith arranged to borrow money from her mother, Dovey Smith, who had accompanied her daughter to meet Nesbitt.
"I was just crying the whole time, thinking that my car was going to be impounded and that we were going to jail," Smith, 21, said today. "It was so weird. I've never been through anything like that."
The Auditor's Office first fielded a complaint about Nesbitt in 1998, after which it cautioned her about using an unlicensed employee to write bonds. "We warned her," said Roberta Cross Guns, an attorney from the Auditor's Office. "She knew she wasn't supposed to do that."
The office logged about six complaints about Nesbitt regarding her business tactics between 1998 and 2001, Raney said. In the complaint that triggered the Auditor's Office's investigation in September 2000, a Hill County inmate said Nesbitt allegedly failed to return his father-in-law's shotgun after a bonding transaction, Raney said. The shotgun eventually was returned.
When more complaints came in, an investigator with the Auditor's Office had two sit-downs with Nesbitt and LaTray between June and August 2000, Cross Guns said.
"We left with the idea that things were going to be OK, and we weren't going to take any action," Cross Guns said. "In the meantime, she gets convicted for this intimidation charge and that raises red flags for us."
Though the Auditor's Office is responsible for her most recent disciplinary action, Nesbitt places blame on law enforcement in Hill County. "I think it's total harassment," said Nesbitt, who had no prior offenses other than the intimidation conviction. "It all stems back to the fall I took at the Hill County Detention Center, which has given me severe medical problems."
Twelve days after she was sentenced on Dec. 18, 2000, Nesbitt said, she slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk in front of the detention center. She said the sprinkler system had broken and sprayed water, which turned to ice on the sidewalk. She has accumulated $500,000 in medical bills, including five back surgeries and recurring migraine headaches, she said.
"She could hardly walk," said Terri Phares, a former Chinook police officer who worked with Nesbitt from 1999-2000. "She hasn't walked without pain since."
Nesbitt said she talked to then Sheriff Tim Solomon after the accident and he refused to take responsibility for the fall. This July, her lawyer filed a letter with Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office, notifying the county of her accident and the circumstances surrounding it. County commissioners forwarded the letter to the county's insurance carrier, Koefod Agency, which is now reviewing the claim. If the claim is rejected, Nesbitt has six months to file a lawsuit.
Nesbitt claims that since her accident, several law enforcement officers in Hill County have harassed her and encouraged inmates to make complaints about her to the Auditor's Office.
Solomon did not respond to messages left for him at the sheriff's office. His phone number is unlisted.
Havre lawyer Carl White, who represented Nesbitt during her intimidation conviction, said, "It is my opinion that she is and was being treated differently than other bail bondsmen in Hill County and I believe it was because she was (planning on) suing the county. It was more difficult for her to do business up there."