Hope for Prisoners founder rats out former colleagues 

By: - March 14, 2022 5:10 am

In this screenshot from the RNC’s livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, then-President Donald Trump addresses the virtual convention alongside Jon Ponder (L), a convicted bank robber pardoned by Trump and founder of Hope for Prisoners, and former FBI agent Richard Beasley. (Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)

Jon Ponder, a convicted bank robber pardoned by then-Pres. Donald Trump during the Republican National Convention in 2020, won’t say why he turned in former Hope for Prisoners colleagues for a seemingly minor infraction – advertising government partnerships for social services on their website.

“Jon Ponder called me this morning and informed me that two of his former employees (Adam Clausen and Nicole Meyer) have created their own non-profit and are using the WC logo on their website,” Jeannie Kuennen of Nevada Workforce Connections wrote to her supervisor, Ricardo Villalobos on Jan. 4, in an email obtained by the Current. 

Hope for Prisoners is one of two Southern Nevada non-profit organizations that receive adult reentry federal grants administered by Workforce Connections, the state conduit for the money.  

The email included a screenshot of the website for Rise Village – a proposed prison reentry transitional living facility, offering access to peer coaches for mental health and substance abuse, banks, job placement, and “family childcare and early ducation assistance in partnership with the City of Las Vegas and State of Nevada.”

Villalobos in turn notified the city, which fired off a cease and desist letter to Clausen and Meyer.  

“Your media and other use of City’s Seal creates a false association with the City of Las Vegas,” says the January letter from Deputy City Attorney David Bailey. “Such an association constitutes fraud.”

“We appreciate your fervor in advocating for the City of Las Vegas,” Clausen of Rise Village responded. “However, your characterization of our publicly stated desire to connect our clients with city services/resources as somehow constituting ‘fraud’ is not only hyperbolic but also threatening in tone.” 

Rise Village has formed a Qualified Opportunity Fund to raise money to buy an assemblage of land at Maryland Parkway and Fremont St, an area within one of the city’s Opportunity Zones (OZs). Investors in the low-income OZs can reap tax benefits passed in 2017 as part of then-President Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy. 

Clausen informed Bailey that his conversations with city officials indicated they were “not only willing, but eager, to support projects such as ours, which will inject tens of millions of dollars in community revitalization development to the downtown area at zero cost to the city.” 

Clausen and Meyer declined to comment on the incident. Ponder has not responded to requests for comment. 

Clausen, sentenced to more than 200 years in federal prison for what he calls a series of addiction-induced robberies during a three-week period in 2000, met Ponder while the two were in custody in Pennsylvania. 

“When Jon and I were together in Allenwood, Jon already had a whole vision, his dream, to build Hope for Prisoners. And he shared that vision with me,” Clausen says in a YouTube video , just days after his release and the night Trump pardoned Ponder. “But at the time, I was still serving 213 years, I was in a penitentiary. I was not focused on reentry. Jon had a very different mindset.” 

Ponder, released from prison in 2009, promised to stay in touch, Clausen says on the YouTube video.  

Clausen, whose “commitment to helping other incarcerated men is unparalleled” according to comments in court documents from a Bureau of Prisons treatment specialist, won release because of the pandemic, his record of service while incarcerated, and his extreme sentence, which could not be imposed under current law.  

“Adam Clausen, through his virtually unprecedented and unmatched record, has earned this opportunity. He has transformed himself while incarcerated and has channeled his abilities to improve the lives of other inmates,” Judge Gerald J. Pappert wrote in Clausen’s order for release, which also noted “Jon Ponder, the CEO of HOPE for Prisoners, has committed to immediately hiring Clausen as a Program Director with a starting salary of $65,000.” 

Neither man will say whether Ponder kept that commitment.  

While Ponder advocated for Clausen’s compassionate release, as a member of Nevada’s Sentencing Commission, in April 2020 he cast the deciding vote against granting a hearing to medically vulnerable inmates seeking release, suggesting they were better off behind bars than being released into an economy suffering massive unemployment. 

“The vast majority of my clients who have been released, who were able to get up and running and find jobs and things of that nature, the vast majority of them have lost their jobs,” Ponder said at the meeting. 

Professional gambler Billy Walters, granted clemency by Trump from federal prison after serving more than half of his five-year sentence for insider trading, recently made a donation of an undisclosed amount to Hope for Prisoners, which is moving to a larger location.   

Rise Village, according to its website, is envisioned as a mixed-use development dedicated to “creating a clear pathway to home ownership for justice impacted families, using educational, entrepreneurial and career- based opportunities.” 

A spokeswoman for Workforce Connections says Rise Village’s principals were “encouraged to connect with current Title I service providers about potential collaboration efforts.” 

“I think they are shady but EUD (Economic and Urban Development) is tee’ing up a conversation on Opportunity Zones with tem [sic],” the city’s director of Community Services, Kathi Thomas-Gibson wrote of Clausen and Meyer in a December 2021 email to her colleagues obtained by the Current. Thomas-Gibson, who is in charge of homeless services, called the plan for Rise Village “sketchy.”   

While Clausen and Meyer declined to be interviewed for this story, they did say they’ve never spoken with Thomas-Gibson, who failed to respond to requests for comment.  

Nevada prison inmates who are eligible for supervised release often remain in custody for lack of a place to go or the money to pay for it, as the Current reported last year.

Housing options for former inmates are limited. Some felony convictions disqualify individuals from joining family in public housing, and parolees are prohibited from living with other offenders, except in licensed facilities. 

City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, who represents the Ward 3 Opportunity Zone where Clausen and Meyer intend to build Rise Village, did not respond to requests for comment. 

As the Current reported last week, the City has partnered with three developers on Opportunity Zone projects, a Trump-era tax break for the rich designed to bring investment to blighted areas by providing jobs and housing for residents.  

Two of those projects won deeply discounted city-owned land for a fraction of the appraised value to build luxury apartment complexes.  

City spokesman Jace Radke says the city is “available to have conversations with those interested in downtown and Las Vegas,” although, as he noted “Rise Village did not own the property they are interested in developing…” 

But then, neither did the luxury apartment developers who negotiated sweetheart deals from the city on prime parcels of land.   

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.