Originally Published in The Washington Post
Michael E. Miller - December 1, 2020
The agreement — struck a few days before a hearing on the allegations — stops short of the bureau’s threat to shut down the company. But it does curtail Libre’s ability to collect controversial monthly fees in exchange for helping hundreds of undocumented immigrants bond out of detention centers.
The settlement is the latest setback for a company under increasing scrutiny.
Libre is under investigation by at least nine additional state or federal agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department, according to a court document Libre filed in August. Another agency, the California Department of Insurance, reached a $5.5 million settlement with Libre last month.
Libre’s co-founder and chief executive Mike Donovan declined an interview request but defended the company in a statement.
“Libre is very pleased to have resolved the inquiry with the Virginia Bureau of Insurance,” he said. “The settlement recognizes the important work Libre does. Libre will continue to serve clients in Virginia, California, and across the United States.”
Donovan said he was not concerned about the mounting inquiries into his company.
“If ... we were defrauding immigrants, why have none of these agencies shuttered the company?” he asked. “Libre is happy to be resolving regulators’ concerns while fighting for our clients’ rights. We will continue that fight.”
Investigations have dogged the company since Donovan and his husband, Richard Moore, launched it in April of 2013, quickly upending the immigration bond industry.
Each year, thousands of people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are granted bond, allowing them to go free while their case proceeds through U.S. immigration courts. Unlike in most criminal courts, however, ICE requires bonds to be paid in full and by someone with legal status in the United States. If an undocumented friend or family member tries to pay someone’s bond, then they, too, will be detained.
As a result, many undocumented immigrants turn to bail bond agencies that — because of connections to surety companies registered with the U.S. Treasury Department — can post bonds with nothing more than a promise to pay if the person doesn’t show up for court.
Few bail bond agencies are willing to post immigration bonds, however, because they are riskier and the cases can drag on for years.
Donovan and Moore — ex-convicts who say they were inspired to start Libre because of their own experiences languishing behind bars for writing bad checks — saw there was huge demand for immigration bonds but little supply.
Because of their felony records, the couple could not become bail bondsmen. Instead, they launched Libre, which means “free” in Spanish.
The company acts as a middleman, using GPS ankle monitors to reassure bond agencies that immigrant clients will show up in court.
But the ankle bracelets — and $420 monthly fees Libre charged for them — quickly drew scrutiny. Within months, ICE had launched an investigation, but found no evidence it was violating any laws that the Department of Homeland Security enforces.
A 2017 investigation by The Washington Post found that some Libre clients were given documents in English — a language they did not speak — and told to sign. They then were startled to have GPS monitors the size of cigarette packs strapped to their legs.
A dozen people told The Post that they struggled to pay the monthly fee for the device. Most said Libre employees threatened them with being returned to ICE custody if they didn’t pay.
The company denied those allegations, saying its contracts were clear and consensual and that employees did not threaten clients. It says it now provides contracts in Spanish.
In early 2017, Donovan said he expected the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown to lead to more detentions and increased demand for Libre’s services.
Libre declined to respond to questions about how business has grown under President Trump, but financial records the company submitted as part of a lawsuit suggest that yearly income nearly doubled to more than $60 million before declining during the coronavirus pandemic.
As business grew, so did the company’s profile. After white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for an August 2017 rally that turned deadly, Libre sued the city and its police chief, accusing them of failing to prevent the clashes.
When the Trump administration launched its “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018, Libre filed lawsuits and posted bonds on behalf of a handful of parents separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
And when the president railed against caravans of Central American migrants headed for the United States, Libre again sued Trump, with Donovan telling Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the president had “defamed” people in the caravan.
Donovan said the company picks court battles “based solely on their merits and not on whether the media will be interested in them.”
But as Libre increasingly made headlines for its lawsuits, it also was hit with several.
A class-action complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California in early 2017 accused Libre of “prey[ing] on detainees’ vulnerability and limited understanding of English to foist crushing financial terms and GPS shackles on detainees.”
A year later, a surety company called RLI Insurance sued Libre in a federal court in Virginia for allegedly failing to pay when immigrants breached their bond by not showing up in court.
The fierce two-and-a-half-year-long legal battle has pulled back the curtains on Libre’s finances, including alleged corporate spending on an $83,000 Ferrari and shopping trips to Saks, Bloomingdale’s and Versace.
At the heart of the lawsuit was a dispute over how often Libre’s clients breached their bonds. Donovan testified that the number was less than 3 percent — far better than the industry average — but RLI claimed it was closer to 50 percent.
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski ruled against Libre last month, saying the company had “proven itself to be an unreliable business partner.” He ordered it to pay $3.3 million in damages and attorney fees, and to post $2.4 million in collateral by Dec. 1.
The company is appealing the decision, but is also facing multimillion-dollar lawsuits from two other former business partners. A GPS ankle bracelet company called Buddi recently claimed in Florida state court that Libre owes it more than $7.3 million. And in Virginia, a law firm that once worked for Libre is suing the company in federal court over $1.4 million in legal bills. Libre denies owing any money and is suing the former business partners for alleged breaches of contract.
Official inquiries into the company have also multiplied, some sparked by The Post’s 2017 investigation.
In August of 2019, the attorney general’s office in Washington state ended a lengthy investigation into Libre by reaching an agreement for the company to provide more than $2.7 million in debt relief and refund $58,800 to 140 customers in the state.
Last month, the California Department of Insurance reached a settlement with Libre for $5.5 million — most of it in debt forgiveness — after finding that the company had effectively been acting as an unlicensed bail bond agency.
Libre did not admit to wrongdoing in that case, nor in the Washington and Virginia settlements.
As part of the California settlement, Libre agreed to stop using GPS ankle bracelets, remove itself from the bond process and forward calls from potential clients to licensed bail bond agents in the state.
The settlement with the Virginia State Corporation Commission went further, requiring Libre to pay $425,000 — including an immediate $100,000 — and making it even more difficult for the company to make money from immigration bonds. Under the agreement, the Bureau of Insurance will monitor the company for the next 30 months.
“This will not completely bar Libre by Nexus from operating in Virginia, but they won’t be able to use their current business practice of using desperation to get bonded out of detention to get immigrants to sign up as program participants,” said Kelly Salzmann, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which helped investigators connect with Libre clients and also has its own ongoing lawsuit against the company.
According to a document Libre filed in the RLI lawsuit, the company remains under investigation by multiple agencies, among them the Justice Department, the U.S. Labor Department, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Colorado Division of Insurance, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on the nature of its investigation. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of Virginia declined to comment.
The attorneys general of Virginia, New York and Massachusetts also are investigating the company and recently filed an amicus brief objecting to a proposed settlement in the California class-action lawsuit as not tough enough on Libre.
Donovan said he expected to reach “amicable outcomes” in the remaining investigations. But he also suggested they were retaliation for Libre backing lawsuits against government agencies.
The investigations, settlement agreements and legal battles paint an uncertain future for Libre, which once planned a $19 million expansion of its main campus in Verona, Va. Nearly four years later, a mound of dirt that Donovan said would one day be a “museum of the American detained immigrant” is overgrown with grass.
Last year, the company moved its corporate headquarters to Atlanta. This summer, it announced it was replacing its controversial ankle bracelets with a smartphone app.
“As a company we continue to adapt to serve our clients,” Donovan said, “and sometimes that means fighting costly legal fights to protect them.”
This story has been updated.to note that Libre did not admit to wrongdoing in any of its settlements.