When retired small businessman Nate Golly started researching the law firm sending him threatening letters related to a car he no longer owned, he got mad.

He read online that many people end up cutting checks to the firm because they’re too busy or too scared, regardless of what the alleged violation was.

But Golly, 72, was far from busy, or scared.

“It wasn’t right,” he said, “to be coerced into paying for something I wasn’t liable for.”

So over six months, Golly wrote letters and made countless phone calls fighting entrenched bureaucracies in two states. He kept diligent records, and ultimately took his fight all the way to the governor’s office.

At stake? $36.10. And one man’s pride.

“It was a major, major struggle,” Golly said.

At first he thought the letters were junk mail. Then, a number on a letter caught his attention: 621BVC. He recognized it as his old license plate number. But he and his wife had sold that car, a 2005 Chevrolet Aveo, eight months earlier to a young man who said he attended a local college.

The subcompact had been in several accidents.

“It was an ugly car to begin with,” Golly said. “And that didn’t make it look any better.”

But the letters he was getting weren’t junk, it turned out. They said Golly owed $36.10 to a public highway authority in Colorado, a state he hadn’t visited in years. At the top of the letter was the name of a Colorado law firm: Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson.

Golly has sold numerous cars in his life. At the time of this sale, on March 23, all of the proper documents were filled out and signed by both parties, including the registration and title. The buyer’s information was recorded on the back side of the registration card and mailed to the Oregon DMV.

Golly could have kept the license plates but “gifted” them to the young man, whose name now escapes him. The Aveo’s registration expired 18 days later.

At about 3:30 a.m. June 11, cameras on a toll road on the east side of Denver captured the car and its expired license plates heading south. The state of Colorado mailed a bill for the toll to Golly.

Colorado law requires the “registered/legal owner” of a vehicle be billed for toll and collection fees. Golly and his wife, Christine, threw away numerous demand letters before they noticed they’d been targeted by a law firm acting as a debt collector for the state of Colorado.

“They appeared to have a legitimate claim,” Nate Golly said. “They were just sending the bill to the wrong party.”

He called the Colorado DMV to report the Aveo had been sold in March. He says he was told the “registered/legal owner” must pay the bill or provide valid contact information for the new owner. He couldn’t remember much about the young man who responded to his Craigslist ad.

On two occasions he paid for the Oregon DMV to release documentation to Colorado — but the information it sent had the young man’s information redacted. This wasn’t acceptable to Colorado. He called both DMVs, imploring them to communicate with each other.

“Both adamantly refused,” he said.

Golly said he was told Oregon’s interpretation of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act prevents the state from publicizing the new driver’s information.

Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson is one of the largest private firms employed to collect public government debt.

It’s been criticized for using scary and misleading tactics that aren’t allowed in consumer debt collection.

Golly thinks in many cases, seniors and people on fixed incomes would rather pay minor fees quickly than see them accrue hundreds of dollars in interest, as Linebarger warns can happen in online materials.

Finally fed up, Golly drafted a handwritten letter to the offices of Gov. Kate Brown and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“We are not responsible for the buyer registering this vehicle, and expect that this will be settled by representatives of Oregon and Colorado without our further involvement,” he wrote.

An Oregon DMV section manager, Debra Wilcox, eventually told him that Brown’s office had authorized the release of the car buyer’s information to Colorado.

Golly attributes his meticulousness and follow-through to his decades running a small business, Sage Rat Drilling Service.

His frustration is reserved for the agencies he dealt with, not the buyer of his car, whom he calls “the hero” of this story.

He still has no idea who the man is, or where he ended up.

“The dude traveled through at least two states with expired plates and had toll fees billed to someone else, and their state protected his identity,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com