The Backpage.com trial is about to go to the jury in Phoenix, who will render a decision that could rock the internet and sex ads worlds.
At issue is whether Backpage.com, at one time the world’s largest internet brothel, knowingly broke the law in publishing prostitution ads, including many for children.
On trial are one of the former owners of Backpage.com, Michael Lacey, and four previous employees of the website, Scott Spear, a former executive vice president; John “Jed” Brunst, former chief financial officer; Andrew Padilla, operations manager; and Joye Vaught, assistant operations manager.
The stakes are high for these defendants. With a potential sentence of five years for each of 50 counts of facilitation of prostitution, and 48 for money laundering, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
If the jury finds them guilty, look for the federal government to launch new criminal actions against other online sites that often include ads for prostitutes. Such a verdict would reinforce that the First Amendment does not shield illegal activity, in this case prostitution—illegal in 49 states and most of Nevada.
Already, many of the websites promoting the sex business have moved overseas as a result of the federal government shutting down Backpage.com in 2018 and enactment of FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.
Conversely, if the jury finds them innocent, the defense will have successfully argued that the defendants only provided the forum and are protected from legal liability.
On the sidelines, not directly involved as a witness or a defendant in the trial, is the antireligious bigot Tony Ortega, once a strident defender of Backpage.com’s existence and trafficking, calling the underage ads “a small number.”
Ortega worked for 17 years for Michael Lacey and his partner, James Larkin, who committed suicide shortly before the trial began. Ortega was editor of The Village Voice from 2005 until he was fired in 2012 for drawing too much attention to Backpage.com with his anti-Scientology tirades—Ortega bragged that he wrote 465 posts about Scientology in the two years before he was fired—in retaliation for the Church’s prominent voice against Backpage ads for underage boys and girls.
Since 2012, Ortega has held no journalism job, his output limited almost solely to an obscure antireligious blog. In all those years, he has also said almost nothing about Backpage.com and the legal threats facing his former employers and colleagues. He wrote and spoke volumes about it when it was paying his salary and propping up his newspaper, including his infamous statement: “The First Amendment was shouted down in the name of children…. Having run off Craigslist, reformers, the devout, and the government-funded have turned their guns upon Village Voice Media.”
Ortega went further: “The whole point of Backpage.com is that we aren’t involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board.” The website, he said, “exists solely so that people can freely express themselves, sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable.”
Then Ortega took a buyout in exchange for silence and vanished. Once the paychecks stopped, so did his constant defense of Backpage.com—likely because of the buyout and because he wanted to distance himself from the legal and moral morass he had skirted.
So depending on what the jury does, what could happen to Tony Ortega now?
If the jury finds Lacey and his cohorts guilty as charged, it is conceivable that federal law enforcement will be emboldened to come after others associated with Backpage.com, including Ortega.
If the jury finds the defendants innocent, will Ortega pop a bottle of champagne and get on the phone to his old colleagues, crowing about his long-ago defense of Backpage ads and hoping for a hearty welcome back to the fold? Unlikely. He knows and they know that his talking too much while at Village Voice drew unwanted attention to Backpage, so everyone will be happiest if he continues in obscurity and silence.