One by one, the escape doors are clanging shut on the infamous Backpage.com gang, as they face charges that could put them in prison for the rest of their lives.
Over the 14-year run of Backpage.com, the owners and employees managed to evade a barrage of legal challenges while, the federal government says, they were flooding in $500 million from their classified sex ads.
Most of that money is long gone, spent on lavish lifestyles and the remainder seized by the feds who shut down Backpage.com in 2018. Those who operated the immensely profitable and utterly loathsome internet brothel advertising prostitutes and underage children, stand accused, indicted and on trial for 100 counts of facilitation of prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy.
On trial in Phoenix are the former major players running Backpage.com: cofounder Michael Lacey; executive vice president of one of Backpage’s parent companies, Scott Spear; chief financial officer John “Jed” Brunst; operations manager Andrew Padilla; and assistant operations manager Joye Vaught. Another indicted cofounder, James Larkin, committed suicide in July before the trial began.
Noticeably silent about the trial is otherwise prolific hate blogger Tony Ortega, who worked for the Lacey-Larkin chain of alt weeklies for 17 years. As editor of The Village Voice during the heyday of Backpage, Ortega was the most vocal defender of their business against the growing chorus of voices calling it a hub of child sex trafficking. He vigorously and vociferously defended the sex ads site and went after those who objected to it, accusing “reformers, the devout, and the government-funded” of having “turned their guns upon Village Voice Media.” In retaliation, among those on Ortega’s hit list for ridicule were anti‑sex trafficking advocates, a CNN journalist, a New York Times columnist, and the Church of Scientology.
But when Ortega’s anti-Scientology bigotry turned into an obsession that further exacerbated scrutiny of Backpage and threatened its revenue stream, Lacey and Larkin fired him in 2012, with two years of salary as “hush money.” Ortega has been silent about Backpage.com to this day.
While recent testimony by former Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer during trial has left little doubt that his (and Ortega’s) former boss knew the ads running on Backpage promoted prostitution, it has raised questions about Ortega’s exact role in devising the propaganda strategy he rolled out in The Village Voice to keep the millions in Backpage sex ads rolling in.
Ortega’s role as chief “attack dog” of Backpage detractors is well known and a matter of public record, and he has never shown remorse for it.
As part of his efforts to turn the heat off Backpage, Ortega sought to minimize child sex trafficking as a “small problem.” In defense of the sex ads site that paid his salary, Ortega wrote in Village Voice: “I remember the last couple of mass panics. Do you?...What’s there to panic about today?…[W]e are being told that there’s a widespread, growing, and out‑of‑control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name ‘trafficking.’
“[T]he newest panic is like the ones that preceded it….The actual data about this ‘epidemic’ is wanting in the extreme. It involves guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agenda about sex work.”
Now direct examination of Carl Ferrer by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Rapp has brought to light an email by Michael Lacey whose language closely parallels Ortega’s propaganda line. In the email Ferrer was questioned about, Lacey insists sex trafficking is “not an epidemic,” referring to it, Ortega-style, as the “trafficking panic.”
This begs the question: Who came up with the damage control strategy when Backpage came under fire during its explosive growth—threatening hundreds of millions of dollars in sex ads revenue?
If he were ever put on the stand and questioned about his part in Backpage, would Ortega take credit for coming up with the crisis management strategy of calling child sex trafficking a “small problem”? Or would he resort to the all-too-familiar default of the desperate—that he was just following orders?