For 17 years, Tony Ortega worked for Michael Lacey and James Larkin, who in August 2023 face a criminal trial on an array of federal charges, including facilitating prostitution and money laundering while principals of the shuttered Backpage.com sex trafficking website.
This employment defines the career of Ortega, whose only other significant job prior to joining the two men’s chain of alt free weeklies in 1995—and since—was teaching English while stargazing on the side at a planetarium for hourly pay.
In a 2005 letter he sent to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Ortega provided insight into the nature of his relationship with Lacey and Larkin: “My corporate cookie-cutting overmasters have parachuted me into four of their newspapers…like the merciless mercenary that I am.” In the ensuing years, Ortega expressed his admiration for what he considered fiscal brilliance on the part of his bosses, writing in a July 6, 2011, article on the Village Voice website, “the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com…”
—TONY ORTEGA IN A 2011 VILLAGE VOICE BLOG, REFERRING TO THE BACKPAGE.COM SEX ADS THAT FUNDED HIS SALARY FOR FIVE YEARS
Nine days later, on July 15, 2011, Ortega wrote on the same forum about the sex ads that funded his salary as editor in chief of The Village Voice, the flagship publication in Lacey and Larkin’s chain of alt weeklies: “[W]e take 30 million ads a year from users at our Backpage.com website, and we have about 100 employees who moderate 20,000 ads a day.” Ortega acknowledged in the article that the ads involved what he referred to as “underage users,” indicating he knew children were sold for sex via Backpage, but insisting it was only “a small number.”
The reality was very different. As outlined in the 100-count indictment that forms the basis of the upcoming criminal trial against Ortega’s former bosses, “Many of the ads published on Backpage depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking.” Further, Lacey and Larkin’s business, the indictment states, was “providing traffickers with easy access to an online venue to sell children for sex.”
When Ortega outlived his usefulness—and his obsessive anti-Scientology blogging drew unwelcome attention to his bosses’ sex trafficking operation, which the Church of Scientology was instrumental in exposing—Lacey and Larkin fired him as Village Voice editor.
According to a former confidant of Ortega, Mark Rathbun, his severance package included a two-year buyout deal in return for his silence about the criminal dealings that fueled the profits from Backpage.
Evidently proud of his legacy, Ortega bragged upon exiting the paper in September 2012: “I helped turn a weekly newspaper with a Web site into a digital enterprise.”
Ortega boasting about a “digital enterprise” he helped create included that during his tenure at the Voice, profits from the Backpage online sex ads experienced an explosive growth—all the while revenue from the paper he helmed for five years dwindled and staff layoffs rocked the publication.
As the criminal indictment against Lacey, Larkin et al. details: “During its first few years of operation, Backpage accounted for only a fraction of VVMH’s [Village Voice Media Holdings] overall revenue. In January 2006, for example, VVMH estimated that Backpage supplied only 1% of its overall advertising revenue…”
This all changed following Ortega’s arrival at The Village Voice in 2007. According to the indictment, “By 2008, Backpage was generating over $5 million in annual profit. This annual profit figure increased to over $10 million in 2009….Backpage’s annual profits grew to over $26 million in 2010, over $52 million in 2011, and over $78 million in 2012. These figures dwarfed the profits that VVMH’s print publications were generating.”
By the time Ortega was booted from the paper, Lacey and Larkin’s chain of alt weeklies under the Village Voice Media (VVM) umbrella, which also owned Backpage.com, was almost entirely funded by Backpage’s revenue, which derived more than 90 percent of its profit from sex ads.
Soon after firing Ortega, Lacey and Larkin offloaded their print publications, retaining only the hugely profitable Backpage part of their VVM business. From its founding in 2004 to 2018—when it was shut down as part of a multiagency federal law enforcement operation—Backpage generated $500 million in prostitution-related revenue.
Ortega has kept his end of the bargain with his overmasters, saying not a word about the criminal operation he profited from substantially, at the expense of children.
His silence is itself an indictment.