Originally Published in The Washington Post
Michael E. Miller - February 22, 2021
“Immigrants come to this country with a dream of finding a better life for themselves and their families,” Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) told reporters during a conference call. “They play a crucial role in our communities and our economies, and they deserve the chance to make it in this country without the fear of being exploited by a company who sees them as only a way to make a profit.”
The company, which was founded in Virginia and still has an office in Verona, denied any wrongdoing.
“Libre by Nexus categorically denies all allegations in the complaint filed against the company today and looks forward to our day in court,” CEO Mike Donovan said in a statement. “Libre commits to continuing to service its amazing family of clients.”
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, is the latest in a string of investigations into and complaints against the company.
Libre, which means “free” in Spanish, helps post bond for people being held in immigration detention centers while they wait for their cases to be heard in backlogged courts. In exchange for their freedom, immigrants sign contracts promising to pay Libre about $420 per month while wearing the company’s GPS ankle devices.
The contracts have been the subject of lawsuits and allegations of fraud by immigrants who claim they did not understand them.
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 Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody if they didn’t pay.
The firm denied those allegations, saying that its contracts were clear and consensual and that employees did not threaten clients. It says it now provides contracts in Spanish and stopped using ankle bracelets last year.
In the lawsuit filed Monday, the CFPB and attorneys general claim that Libre used “unconscionable tactics, including . . . lengthy and complicated contracts written in English when most consumers do not understand English; and presenting contracts to detainees for signature only after they have been released from detention.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) recounted the stories of three Libre clients during the news conference.
One woman felt “tricked” and “cheated,” Healey said, after discovering she and her family had paid thousands of dollars not to pay off the bond, but in fees to Libre.
Another received “threatening text messages” implying that she could be re-detained if she didn’t keep up with her payments, the attorney general said. And in the case of a male client, Healey said, Libre began “harassing his family members, telling them they were going to call debt collectors or take them to court or ruin their credit.”
“This is horrible stuff,” she said.
Libre did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the lawsuit or officials’ claims. But in its statement, the company suggested that the litigation was retaliation for lawsuits Libre has filed on behalf of detainees.
“While the federal government continues to detain scores of immigrants, the AGs have ignored the fact that these detention centers operate within their own borders,” Donovan said. “From Buffalo to Farmville to Suffolk MA, immigrants are tortured while Herring, [New York Attorney General Letitia] James and others conduct a shadowy investigation into the only company helping the immigrants they claim to be protecting. Libre by Nexus welcomes this action as finally these inquiries can be brought out of the shadows and into one courtroom.”
Officials said they are seeking millions of dollars in restitution for thousands of alleged victims as well as penalties against the company.
David Uejio, who was appointed the CFPB’s acting director last month, said the suit is a sign his agency is prioritizing racial equity. “Today’s action should serve notice to the entire market that financial scams targeting communities of color will not be tolerated,” he said.
The lawsuit comes amid mounting financial issues for Libre. Last year, the California Department of Insurance reached a $5.5 million settlement with the company over similar allegations. In November, Libre agreed to pay $425,000 to settle an investigation by the Virginia Bureau of Insurance. The agreements restricted Libre’s ability to operate in the states. The company did not admit wrongdoing in either case.
According to a court document Libre filed in August, the firm was under investigation by nearly a dozen state or federal agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department. The company is also engaged in multimillion-dollar lawsuits. In one, Libre was recently ordered to pay $3.3 million in damages and attorney fees and to post $2.4 million in collateral.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in California approved a settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit filed by immigrants against Libre.
Michael E. Miller is a reporter on the local enterprise team. He joined The Washington Post in 2015 and has also reported from Afghanistan.