November 7, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Augusta County officials under fire
On the eve of Election Day, I feel obliged to mention a puzzling situation that has arisen in and around Augusta County over the past few months. Tensions between local government officials and a new private social services company called Nexus mounted after Nexus (see below) accused the Sheriff's office and local bail bond companies of illegally conspiring against them. Nexus offers zero-fee bail for many people who are arrested and charged with crimes, and it seems that Nexus is cutting in on the traditional bail bond companies' business. The undocumented immigrants who comprise much of Nexus clientele must meet stiffer bail requirements because of the high flight risk, and Nexus minimizes its risk by fitting its clients with GPS ankle bracelets, a technological innovation. After David Bourne, one of the bail bond operators, warned the Sheriff about the past criminal records of the Nexus owners (Michael Donovan and Richard Moore, who were guilty of passing bad checks), in May the latter filed a $1 million lawsuit against Bourne, Donald Moran, Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith, Augusta County Commissioner of Revenue Jean Shrewsbury, on the grounds of conspiracy and defamation. See newsleader.com.
Somehow, this tension escalated to the point that one part-time government auditor, Ray Ergenbright (his legal first name is Gene), sent another official an e-mail message that featured a smiley face emoticon modified to look like Adolph Hitler. It is not entirely clear what the point of that emoji was, but it sparked even sharper protests by Nexus. They demanded the resignation of Shrewsbury, arguing that the e-mail messages between her, Ray Ergenbright, and another auditor (Joy Mauzy) demonstrated prejudicial hostility and lack of professionalism.
DISCLAIMER: I know Ray Ergenbright and Jean Shrewsbury from my past involvement in local Republican politics, and I respect them for their devotion to public service, but I have not had any contact with either of them for at least the last two years.
The dispute seemed to fade away, but in July Nexus accused the Augusta County Sheriff's Office's of improperly detaining seven undocumented immigrants along Interstate 81. See whsv.com.
More recently, Nexus also targeted Harrisonburg Commissioner of Revenue Karen Rose, since Ergenbright also works part-time for that office. I have seen (at least a dozen times) a TV ad in which three African-American clergymen who lead a group called Americans Resisting Minority and Ethnic Discrimination (A.R.M.E.D.) denounce the alleged racism and bigotry which the Hitler emoji seems to signify. There is no explanation of how these people came together or why this particular case has them so upset. To me, it seems a bit contrived. The idea that Jean Shrewsbury or the other government officials are "racists" seems absurd. One would think the people most likely to be offended by Hitler emojis would be Jews, but as far as I can tell, there are no Jewish members of A.R.M.E.D. The ad calls attention to a new website, nohitleremojis.com, which tries to explain the rationale behind the campaign to remove Shrewsbury and Rose from office. I saw this sign in Staunton about six weeks ago:
Today (November 7), Ray Ergenbright held a press conference in Harrisonburg, expressing regret for the offensive symbols but denying that there was malice toward any group. It was the first public statement he had made since the controversy broke out last spring. See WHSV.com.
What is Nexus?
Support for the "A.R.M.E.D." group (which sounds menacing, perhaps deliberately) comes from an innovative private social services company called Nexus, which operates several distinct services. Of most concern is Libre by Nexus Services, which provides interest-free bail bonds to people (especially undocumented immigrants) who would otherwise have to stay in jail pending a court hearing. Nexus co-owners Donovan and Moore both spent months in jail several years ago, because they couldn't raise bail, and this experience is what motivates them in this unique, multifaceted enterprise. Nexus also operates a real estate office as well as charity service catering to immigrants. A few months ago, they began broadcasting a television show called "Breaking Through" on Channel 3 in Harrisonburg, covering a variety of local issues. The show features Nexus President Mike Donovan and Dave Briggman, a local Republican activist who happens to be a Facebook friend of mine. (We met at a February 2012 political event at which Karen Kwiatkowski, who was chalenging Rep. Bob Goodlatte in the Republican primary, was also present; scroll down.)
It's hard to know where this dispute will lead, but it is a good example of the administrative stress that happens whenever public policy fails to address a major problem such as illegal immigration. There is a huge financial incentive for entrepreneurs such as Nexus to exploit the legally-vulnerable immigrant population in the United States, and this will remain the case as long as the Federal government fails to articulate a clear policy on immigration.