The Backpage Trial Is Over

The people and sordid operation Tony Ortega once defended are found guilty in federal trial, and further action could come.

Tony Ortega is still silent
Tony Ortega is still silent

Tony Ortega, once the leading apologist for sex ads website, always insisted “there’s nothing to see here” when it came to facilitating prostitution—denying it, downplaying it, attacking those who objected to it on the website.

“The whole point of is that we aren’t involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board,” explained Ortega. “[It] exists solely so that people can freely express themselves, sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable.”

A jury in a trial that ended November 16, 2023, disagreed with the benign scenario Ortega painted of Backpage’s role in facilitating prostitution. On trial in Phoenix were former owner Michael Lacey and four former executives, tried on 100 counts of facilitation of prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy.

The prosecution charged that the defendants knowingly promoted prostitution by means of various marketing strategies, and that they also used an automated filter and human moderators to remove known prostitution and underage sex terms in an attempt to sanitize what they knew were prostitution ads.

The defendants earned more than $500 million during the conspiracy before it was seized by the federal government in 2018. The jury found that Lacey and two of the others sought to preserve the Backpage millions through extensive money laundering operations, including creating numerous shell companies in multiple foreign countries.

In the end, Lacey was convicted on one count of international concealment money laundering, for which he faces a maximum 20-year sentence. Scott Spear, former executive vice president, and John Brunst, former chief financial officer, were found guilty of facilitation of prostitution and money laundering and both face up to 20 years for each count of money laundering and additional time for facilitating prostitution. These could be life sentences given they are all in their 70s.

Tony Ortega, while editor at The Village Voice, owned by Michael Lacey and James Larkin (who committed suicide just before the trial was to begin in August 2023), was a loud voice proclaiming was a legitimate operation protected by the First Amendment—ignoring that crimes (i.e., prostitution) are not protected free speech.

It was no secret at that the site was an advertising service for sex ads. Carl Ferrer, former CEO of, protected by a plea bargain with prosecutors, testified that the ads were for prostitution and everyone concerned knew it.

This legal proceeding is far from over. There will be a sentencing date, appeals most likely will be filed, and there’s always the looming specter of charges against unindicted and unnamed co-conspirators. No telling who could be on such a list.