A former FBI agent testified in court Wednesday that he turned to a Stanislaus County prosecutor to seek local criminal charges after the U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute a Modesto bail bonds business owner.
Special Agent Kenneth Tam had spent at least a year on an investigation into Aleo John Pontillo and his business, AJ's Bail Bonds, but federal prosecutors chose not to seek an indictment.
Frank Carson, Pontillo's defense attorney, asked Tam if he was frustrated that federal authorities did not prosecute Pontillo.
"I wouldn't say I was frustrated. I would say I was surprised," Tam said while on the witness stand Wednesday testifying in Pontillo's preliminary hearing. Tam now works as an investigator for the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Explaining his line of questioning to the judge, Carson argued that Tam was personally upset about Pontillo's confrontational attitude when the FBI agent interviewed the business owner in December 2008.
Authorities had just served search warrants at Pontillo's business and home, and he was the focus of a federal investigation. Carson argued that Tam has held a grudge against Pontillo since then.
"His attitude toward me had no relevance in how I handled this investigation," Tam testified.
He said he wasn't disappointed when federal prosecutors decided not to proceed with charges against Pontillo. The 2008 interview with Pontillo, Tam said, didn't have any animosity. He remembered sharing a laugh with Pontillo over a Christmas ham.
Tam eventually presented the evidence he collected in the federal investigation to Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris, hoping local authorities could file charges against Pontillo.
"I made no recommendations as to what should be charged," Tam testified. "I only presented the evidence."
Local charges filed
In September 2011, local authorities filed criminal charges, alleging Pontillo and office manager Janelle Marie Llorens were responsible for handcuffing their clients and threatening them for hours at the Yosemite Boulevard business from 2006 to 2008 until they paid what was owed.
Another bail agent from the business, Mark David Davis, is suspected of conspiring with Pontillo and Llorens to commit grand theft to steal more than $250,000 from the county by submitting fraudulent bail bonds claims.
Tam testified that he felt Pontillo wanted to drive down the bail bond premiums to gain a larger share of the market in Modesto. Pontillo told Tam that his business asked clients to pay a 2 percent bail bond premium and asked for the rest in credit payments.
"That was a way to get more business," Tam said. "Mr. Pontillo needed the (credit payment) collections to pay his employees and his (business) overhead."
AJ's Bail Bonds incurred a cost of up to 2.2 percent of each bail bond sold.
One bail agent who once worked for Pontillo told Tam that about two clients each day owing the most money were picked up from the courthouse and brought to AJ's Bail Bonds. The former bail agent said he saw clients handcuffed at the office overnight until Pontillo arrived in the morning.
Tam testified that the clients were held at the business from two to five hours. Those who were cooperative were allowed to sit, while those who weren't were forced to stand while handcuffed.
Testimony in the preliminary hearing continues today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.