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A complex 'Nexus': Activists, multiple lawsuits and reality TV

Cortez Nathan, Antwhon Suiter, Michael Phillips, and Samuel Orlando (l to r)
Randi B. Hagi
Cortez Nathan, Antwhon Suiter, Michael Phillips, and Samuel Orlando (l to r)

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the Augusta County Sheriff's Office aren't just activists – they're also cast members on a reality TV show produced by the CEO of Nexus Services. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Back in September, eight plaintiffs under the moniker "BLM of the Shenandoah Valley" filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Western Virginia against the Augusta County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Donald Smith, Commonwealth's Attorney Timothy Martin, and the county government. The activists contend that the sheriff arbitrarily used a noise ordinance to cite and arrest them after weeks of escalating protests outside the sheriff's office.

But the footage the plaintiffs shot during those protests was not just for accountability or social media – it was also for a reality TV show called The System. The show's first episode was released on Youtube last month by the company Unleashed TV – whose CEO is Nexus founder Mike Donovan. The main branch of Nexus, called Libre by Nexus, posts bail bonds for people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then monitors them. The company is currently being taken to court by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the states of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia for allegedly preying on their clients with misleading contracts and threats of deportation.

Donovan was not available for an interview in the past week.

Four cast members of The System spoke with WMRA. They said they aren't paid for their participation on the show, although they do live rent-free in houses that are owned by the vice president and an LLC subsidiary of Nexus, according to county records. But they argue that their intentions are purely justice-oriented.

CORTEZ NATHAN: I've always been an activist. I remember my very first protest being the Trayvon Martin hoodie march.

Cortez Nathan said he's originally from Illinois, and moved to the area two years ago.

NATHAN: There were plenty of times when we were protesting at the Augusta County Sheriff's Office and times when we were out in Florida when we didn't have cameras, because, you know, this is not about the cameras. This is about passion at the end of the day.

Antwhon Suiter grew up in the area, and said he became an activist after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed – before getting involved with the show.

ANTWHON SUITER: I don't think it's any different than watching, you know, somebody that does bounty hunting on TV, or watching cops that are live on TV, or anything like that. … And that's another reason why we feel as if it's important that we do what we do, because it's from a perspective of … people don't see it on a regular basis.

As a strange aside on bounty hunting – Unleashed TV was previously working on a show with Dog the Bounty Hunter called Dog Unleashed, before Dog – a.k.a Duane Chapman – and Mike Donovan had a falling out. Donovan sued Chapman in the Richmond City Circuit Court in October for allegedly using racial and homophobic epithets, and illegally carrying a taser on set. To date, there have been no hearings held or scheduled in that case. However, Chapman's daughter, Bonnie Chapman, has since joined the cast of The System.

The first episode of The System opens with cast members video chatting and texting one another to organize a protest in Peoria, Illinois. The opening theme features stylized artwork of the young protesters with one-word nicknames such as "Ghost" and "Nitro" – and Mike Donovan as "The Boss."

NATHAN: He's more or less just like a mentor, slash, a supporter for us.

The group has also been to Florida, North Carolina, and D.C. for various events and campaigns. Out in Peoria, the activists were protesting the company RLI Insurance for supposedly releasing the personal information of thousands of immigrants. Cast member Samuel Orlando explains.

SAMUEL ORLANDO: I thought that was really messed up, and I think that that should never happen to any clients of any sort, any immigrants, anywhere. So I wanted to get my friends together, and I wanted to protest outside RLI to show, this is how mad people get about stuff like this, and this is what people will do to show you that they care. They will bring a group out there and they will protest you.

I asked Orlando how he first heard about the situation.

ORLANDO: Well, that was like two years ago now. It's kind of like, blank in my mind, but I knew I had to be there to protest RLI.

The allegation that RLI had released sensitive information appears to have first come from Nexus – after RLI sued them. To summarize, RLI had an agreement with Nexus that RLI would act as a middle man on the immigration bonds between Nexus and the Department of Homeland Security – but if Nexus's clients didn't show up for their court date, Nexus was supposed to pay the full bond for that person. But RLI claims that Nexus reneged on their agreement, leaving RLI on the hook for debts owed to the federal government. RLI sued in 2018.

As the civil case dragged on, a former Libre by Nexus client named José Guzmán, who publicly defended the company when the Washington Post investigated them in 2017, filed a class action complaint against RLI in September of 2020, alleging that RLI had disclosed login information on the courts' online database that could lead to the exposure of his and all other Libre by Nexus clients' personal information. A week and a half later, The System was there in Peoria, protesting RLI.

Guzmán's attorneys tried to file multiple restraining orders against RLI that would bar them from accessing the information about Nexus's accounts that RLI had demanded in their lawsuit. After the restraining orders were denied, Guzmán voluntarily dropped the complaint.

In October of 2020, a federal judge ordered Nexus to pay millions of dollars to RLI in damages and collateral security for their bonds, and turn over their books and records. Nexus did not comply, and appealed that decision. On January 27th of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the U.S. District Court's ruling.

The System activists who spoke with WMRA didn't seem to know much about that case, or the others Nexus is embroiled in – such as the multi-state investigation or Nexus co-owner Richard Moore being charged by the Department of Justice with $1.5 million in employment tax fraud.

SUITER: I would say that that really doesn't have anything to do with what we've been doing. And I don't mean that in a rude way towards you … what our problem is is that people are dying and people are being abused and manipulated by the criminal justice system.

They argue that their activism has too high a cost for them to just be doing it for clout or room and board – such as the time when Cortez Nathan was protesting in Staunton, and a man came up and punched him in the head. That was caught on camera by a bystander, and the man was charged with assault and battery in a hate crime.

NATHAN: And it's crazy, because you could really see just how different Staunton and Waynesboro cops are from Augusta County. You know, at the end of the day it's all about being professional, in a sense.

As for the lawsuit against Sheriff Donald Smith and the rest, a December 6th hearing was canceled because the lawyer for BLM of the Shenandoah Valley, Chris Okay, missed a filing deadline. Okay has since asked twice for leniency to file late.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.