Michael Donovan thinks the sheriff is after him.
He’s a convicted felon who served time. But Donovan says officers in Virginia’s rural Augusta County are following him for reasons unrelated to his criminal record: He founded a not-for-profit group that puts up bail for people in jail who lack the financial resources, and he thinks the powers that be prefer the status quo.
“For-profit bonds are kind of a dinosaur,” Donovan said. “It’s their intent to stamp out the competition.”
He alleges in a federal lawsuit that the Augusta County sheriff and other county officials, including a former bail bondsman, are conspiring to put him out of business to protect their allies in the bail industry. According to the suit, law enforcement and county officials have tailed him, interrogated his employees, inspected his office and defamed him in emails featuring smiley faces with Adolf Hitler mustaches — all in an attempt to preserve what Donovan calls a corrupt bail system.
County officials named in the suit declined to comment on the case, but attorneys for the sheriff’s office said in court documents that the suit contains “blantantly baseless mischaracterizations, and superfluous and grandiose hyperbole.”
Bail, as most know it, allows those accused of crimes to go free after paying a lump sum that is returned when their case ends. Those without means can pay part of that lump sum, usually 10 percent, to a bail bond agent, who will post bail for them — and sic a bounty hunter on them if they skip town. Those who can’t pay 10 percent sit in jail.
About 16 years ago, Donovan, 38, was in this last category. He served seven months in prison after writing two bad checks, he said, and was unable to pay his $45,000 bail. He also pleaded guilty to a felony in 2009 after not paying a hotel bill and served four months in prison.
“I took a deal and pled guilty to six felonies because that’s the way I could go home,” he said of his older convictions. “Had I been able to pay bond, it would have ended differently. . . . I wouldn’t have had my life halted without the ability to make that situation right.”
Inspired by his experience, Donovan and his partner founded Libre by Nexus in 2012. The company, which posts bonds for detainees in federal immigration proceedings who consent to GPS monitoring, started out in three Virginia counties but quickly went nationwide, with 27 offices across North America and one in El Salvador.
Libre by Nexus found a niche. Because of flight risk, immigrants detained by the Department of Homeland Security have to post bonds higher than those posted by other criminal defendants, Donovan said. The for-profit Libre by Nexus also funds the Serve by Nexus free bail program.
But Libre has come under fire from immigration advocates who are critical of the high fees it charges for GPS bracelets and liken it to a payday lender. At up to $420 per month, the fees can exceed what federal detainees would pay to get out of detention if they could afford a one-time payment.
“I can see how their service would be useful on a short-term basis,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, the legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s immigrant advocacy program. “But when used on a long-term basis, it becomes extremely exploitative. And most, if not all, will end up using it on a long-term basis.”
Donovan said he respects Sandoval-Moshenberg’s work but thinks advocates give his own work short shrift.
Susan Ruppenthal was released in October 2015 after serving 2½ years in federal prison for drug-related crimes. Released to a Salvation Army in Harrisonburg, she knew no one in the area.
In her first days as an ex-offender in a new city, Serve by Nexus helped her get a pair of shoes and gave her a ride to her job in a book factory nearby, Ruppenthal said.
“This place is a good place to have here,” said Ruppenthal, 35. “I don’t want to know what I would do without them.”
Russell Jones, 38, who was bailed out last year by Serve by Nexus when he couldn’t pay his $1,000 bail, agreed. Jones said Serve by Nexus gave him clothing and placed him in a rent-free apartment when he got out, helping get him to get back on track.
“It’s not a small steppingstone,” Jones said of the program. “They want it to be a transformative experience.”
Donovan said keeping a person in jail for $100 — what Jones would likely have had to pay a bail bond agent — is “not American.”
Serve by Nexus is not alone.
David Feige, board chairman of the 3-year-old Bronx Freedom Fund, touted as the first charitable bonding program licensed in New York state, described what he called a “Newtonian law” of incarceration: A person at liberty stays at liberty, and a person in jail stays in jail.
“The greatest determinant in the outcome in a criminal case had nothing to do with guilt, innocence or evidence,” Feige said. “It had to do with bail.”
While the bail bond industry doesn’t object to such charitable endeavors, its representatives say bail bond agents already help people get out of jail. After all, these are the guys paying an offender’s bond for 10 percent down — or less in states where partial payment is permitted.
“Our position as an industry is bail agents should be allowed to have a piece of the action,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade industry group.
Augusta County Sheriff Donald L. Smith declined to comment, and Virginia’s Division of Risk Management, which is representing the state officials involved, said it could not comment on pending litigation. But Donovan’s suit paints a picture of officials with close ties to the bail bond industry trying to kill an outsider’s challenge to the way things work.
David L. Bourne is a bail bond agent in Verona, Va. His office is across the street from the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office — with a car emblazoned with the logo “1-800-FOR-BAIL” on the lawn outside — just down the road from county tax officials. One deputy sheriff used to work for him, Donovan alleges. And Bourne doesn’t like Serve by Nexus’s free business model.
“None of us can compete with free bail,” Bourne wrote in a Jan. 18 email to a national bail insurance company.
Bourne, who did not respond to requests for comment, allegedly tried to convince other county officials that Serve by Nexus was up to no good. Some officials appeared to agree, according to the lawsuit.
“This group needs to be watched closely,” Jack Lee, the superintendent of Augusta County’s Middle River Regional Jail, wrote on Feb. 15. “They could be recklessly dangerous to the whole criminal justice system.” On Feb. 25, Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin wrote: “I really can’t stand these people and have no clue where the money comes from.”
Then came the Hitler emoji.
On March 7, Donovan’s suit alleged, three county tax officials came to his company’s headquarters. Donovan met with the officials for the unannounced tour, explaining that some clients seek refuge in the United States because they are gay.
“Mr. Donovan noted that gangs in Africa and El Salvador were exterminating men who they believed were homosexuals, much like Hitler did during the atrocities that led up to World War II,” the lawsuit said.
Back at the office on the day after the tour, the lawsuit claims, tax officials mined this material for politically incorrect laughs.
“You might want to consider El Salvador [for retirement] and I know someone you can go with!” Augusta County tax auditor Joy Mauzy wrote in an email appended with a smiley face that resembled Hitler.
Another county tax auditor, Gene R. Ergenbright, responded. “If he’s in El Salvador . . . I want to be in Alaska,” he wrote in an email chain that included his own Hitler emoji.
Mauzy and Ergenbright declined comment through the Division of Risk Management. In court documents, counsel for Augusta County’s revenue commissioner said the email disclosure was “inadvertent and not authorized” and that “one employee directed a smiley face Hitler emoji at his co-worker for being ‘dictatorial’ about her request for a report about . . . unrelated business.”
Attorneys for the sheriff’s office also said they had questions about Donovan’s charity.
“Those behind it are not Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, or Nike, Inc., but rather a couple whose admitted extensive criminal record inspired the business model,” they wrote in a court filing.
In discussing the emails, Donovan said the tax officials had used government computers to make light of something “that should never be funny.”
“It’s important for people to understand what’s happening here is wrong,” Donovan said. “. . . We’ve decided to fight it.”
Chico Harlan and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.