Ira Wilkins should be a free man. Wilkins has served his time in an Oklahoma prison and is clear for release. But a private court fee collections agency is keeping him behind bars.
Wilkins is the lead plaintiff in a new racketeering lawsuit against the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, every sheriff’s department in the state, and the court fee collections firm Aberdeen Enterprizes II. When Oklahomans owe court fees, their case is assigned to Aberdeen, which charges them an additional 30 percent on top of what courts want. If they don’t pay, Aberdeen requests a warrant for the debtor’s arrest. It’s big business for Aberdeen and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, which received more than $800,000 from Aberdeen in 2015.
But while Aberdeen and the OSA strike it rich, poor Oklahomans are languishing in modern day debtors prison, the lawsuit alleges.
“These plaintiffs are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from indigent people through a pattern of illegal and unconscionable behavior,” the suit filed last week in federal court alleges.
Court fees add up quickly in Oklahoma, and quicker when Aberdeen is on the case.
The lawsuit cites the case of an unnamed homeless man who was arrested on retail larceny and trespassing charges on New Year’s Eve 2016. The man, who is on disability payments, claims he didn’t have the $150 he needed to bond out of jail. When he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, he was slapped with $425 in fines and fees, plus $385 in “hidden costs.” The sum came out to over $800—more than the man’s monthly disability earnings. Then the man’s money troubles got worse. His case was handed to Aberdeen, which increases all debts by 30 percent.
“Plaintiff was given a letter to sign, not by the court or an attorney, but by a sheriff’s officer at the jail acknowledging his ‘debt’ to Aberdeen,” the lawsuit reads.
Aberdeen is the brainchild of Jim Shofner, a former Oklahoma bankruptcy lawyer who was disbarred after pleading guilty to fraud in 2001. Shofner admitted to helping a client hide over $100,000 from the IRS under a fake name. After his release from prison in 2003, he founded Aberdeen in 2006. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Shofner said he had retired from Aberdeen and was unaware of the lawsuit. Neither Aberdeen nor the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association returned requests for comment.
Under Aberdeen’s watch, debtors can also wind up in jail. When an Oklahoman owes court fees, Aberdeen contacts the debtor by phone or mail, informing them of the arrest warrant. The message is clear: Pay or go to jail.
In 2016, “failure to pay” was the fourth most common cause of incarceration in the state, with 1,163 Oklahomans booked into jail, according to the lawsuit. (That’s almost as many as possession of controlled substance, the most common cause of incarceration, with 1,326 people book.) Currently, Oklahoma has approximately 45,000 open “failure to pay” warrants, Daniel Smolen, one of the attorneys representing Wilkins told The Daily Beast.
Smolen said the system represents a private company’s disturbing creep into law enforcement.
“Imagine if Visa could call you, if you didn’t make an arbitrary payment for the amount they thought was fair, and issue a warrant for your arrest,” Smolen said.
Sometimes Oklahomans could be accused of “failure to pay” even if they were giving Aberdeen everything they could.
“I’d bring $50 in and set it on the counter saying ‘this is all I have,’” Montell Fisher, an Oklahoma man whose case is referenced in the suit, told The Daily Beast. “The clerk called up Aberdeen, which said if you don’t have the full $75, we can’t accept it.”
Fisher said he was arrested three times for failure to pay, resulting in the suspension of his license. After his release from jail, he started taking the classes required to regain his license, which he said added up to around $400. And soon he learned his license would remain suspended until he paid of his debt to Aberdeen.
Ironically, the suspended license made it difficult for Fisher to go to work and earn money to pay off Aberdeen, he said. Without a car, he relied on the bus, or friends for rides to work. “I’m taking a risk every day,” he said. “There’s no guarantee I make it on time.”
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association is making serious money off its relationship with Aberdeen, the lawsuit alleges.
Aberdeen has a contract with the OSA, a nonprofit group that trains and coordinates policies for all of Oklahoma’s 77 sheriffs’ departments. That contract gives the OSA a cut of Aberdeen’s earnings. Although the exact percentage of the OSA’s cut is redacted in the copy of the contract included in the lawsuit, the OSA’s public tax filings show that the figure is over $500,000 annually.
In 2016, the OSA raked in over $761,000 from its “warrants and collections program,” tax filings reviewed by The Daily Beast show. That figure made up 65.9 percent of the OSA’s revenue. The previous year, the OSA made over $829,000 from the warrants program.
Those figures tower over the OSA’s earnings from 2009, the group’s last year before inking the contract with Aberdeen. That year, the OSA had a total revenue of under $270,000.
Much of the OSA’s newfound wealth is going into events and advertisements. In 2016, the OSA spent over $128,000 on “advertising and promotion,” more than any other expense category on its tax returns. The OSA also spent nearly $80,000 on “conferences, conventions, and meetings.”
The OSA’s most recent event was an Oct. 19 speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who criticized a push for lighter sentences, and said there isn’t “a sentencing problem,” only a crime problem. “If we want to bring down our prison population then we should bring down crime,” he said.
But a portion of Oklahoma’s prison population is only behind bars because they don’t have enough money to finish their Aberdeen payments. The company’s 30 percent hike in fees means some Oklahomans can pay their minimum balance for years but barely make a dent in their overall debt.
“There’s people who have paid $100 every month for the past five years, only see their balances go down two percent,” Smolen said. “Some people have paid eight years, $100 a month, and their balances haven’t gone down at all.”
Wilkins, the lead plaintiff, was in prison for an unrelated charge, and served out his sentence. But the Department of Corrections “can’t release him because he has an active warrant on failure to pay,” Smolen said.
“Aberdeen’s held that over his head and tried to extort money from his family, even though they know he’s indigent, in custody, with no job and no ability to pay.”
Even when they don’t go to jail, Aberdeen users complain of harassment from the company. On the company’s Better Business Bureau page, Aberdeen users complained of being trapped in frustrating payment loopholes.
“Constantly sending notices by mail claiming I owe money for warrants, when all of that was paid months ago,” one person complained. Aberdeen wrote back on the BBB page, responding that because the person had paid their debt directly to the court, the company did not know the debt was cleared. Another person complained that they received “harassing” calls from Aberdeen, which referred to her by a name she did not recognize and told her to pay a debt she did not owe. Aberdeen wrote back, pasting the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “harass” in the comments section. The woman’s experience did not meet the definition of “harassment” because Aberdeen had only called once, the company claimed.
But Aberdeen’s deal with Oklahoma sheriffs means the company still holds a special place in the eyes of the law.
“They’ve privatized the process of warrants being issued or recalled. They have given Aberdeen the authority to control that,” Smolen told The Daily Beast. “They have a private incentive to extort as much as they can out of the indigent through threats and intimidation.”
“It’s been hell with them ever since they took over,” Fisher said of his case. “I feel agitated and angry at the same time.”