A company that helps detained immigrants secure bail bonds wants Buzzfeed to pay at least $5 million for defamation, according to a lawsuit filed Saturday.
Libre by Nexus, based in Virginia, sued Buzzfeed and editor-in-chief Ben Smith in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over a story published on the news website last year. The company alleges the article was “replete with false and defamatory statements,” and honed in on a statement that federal immigration officials investigated the company for fraud. Libre by Nexus is the subject of criticism and lawsuits by immigrant rights activists and former clients who claim it deceived them.
The company is represented by John Shoreman of D.C. firm McFadden and Shoreman.
“The defamatory statements tend to injure Nexus in its business trade as the allegations call into question the proper operation of Nexus’ business,” the company’s complaint said. “Additionally, the statement subjects Nexus to distrust, scorn, ridicule, hatred, and contempt.”
In an emailed statement, a representative for parent company Nexus Services Inc. said the damage done to Nexus is “incalculable given the countless time spent combatting the defamatory material published by Buzzfeed.”
“The journalistic malpractice committed by Buzzfeed caused others to repeat this misinformation in social media, blog postings, and other publications,” the representative wrote. “Buzzfeed certainly knew that publishing this defamatory material would lead to its wide distribution. The company’s policy is to aggressively defend its reputation, and is considering legal action in other instances of defamatory publications.”
Buzzfeed News spokesman Matt Mittenthal said in an email the lawsuit lacks merit.
“This entire lawsuit is based on one sentence in our story — backed up by public, government documents — which clearly states that the investigations into Libre were closed,” Mittenthal said. “By any standard, this is obviously not defamatory, and makes this lawsuit likely to fail.”
Buzzfeed reporter Alfondo Flores wrote the article, though he is not a named defendant in the lawsuit. The story, titled “Immigrants Desperate To Get Out Of US Detention Can Get Trapped By Debt,” details Nexus’ business model and concerns about its ethics. The company helps detained immigrants post bond by requiring them to wear a GPS device on which they pay a monthly fee. The Nexus’ website said the typical amount “paid is roughly 20% of the bond.”
Nexus claims the story’s assertion that Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigated it is false, and that Buzzfeed and Smith knew as much before publishing.
The complaint cites a November 2015 letter from ICE to Rep. Norma Torres. D-California, which allegedly said ICE “has no legal authority to investigate or prosecute bail bond companies or other related service providers regarding allegations of inappropriate conduct between two private parties such as an indemnitor and bond company.”
The letter is not included in the complaint, but the company claims Buzzfeed and Smith “had full knowledge” of it. The company representative said Buzzfeed’s “failure” to disclose the information and report on the letter is “journalistic malpractice.”
Torres, who represents Southern California’s 35th Congressional District, posted the Buzzfeed story to her government website in June 2016. The article links to a government document obtained by Buzzfeed via a Freedom of Information Act request, which appears to show the agency initiated an investigation into Nexus and closed it for lack of evidence. The company representative said that document “referred to an earlier inquiry that had been closed.”
According to a report from Courthouse News Service, Nexus sued an immigrant rights group in local court in New York last month. The company claims the group illegally counsels Libre customers to remove their GPS anklets.
Nexus is also a defendant in a lawsuit in state Superior Court in California and a class-action lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of California. In May, the Washington Post reported that Libre was under investigation in at least two states, though the article did not disclose which agencies were spearheading the investigations.
In the statement, the company representative said Nexus “provides life saving and life sustaining services” and plans to sponsor more than 100,000 pro bono legal defense hours this year.
“Attacks against our company are attacks against our clients and the vital services we provide them,” the representative wrote. “For these reasons we are committed to fighting against efforts to mischaracterize our brand and the work we are called to do across the country.”