The moment Tony Ortega’s involvement with Backpage.com became so hands-on that it allowed, in the words of veteran Village Voice investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, “underaged ads to flourish” on the sex ads site, Ortega knew he had a monumental problem.
Under the leadership of Ortega’s bosses as Village Voice editor, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, business was booming at the paper’s sister company Backpage.com. Revenue doubled from 2010 to 2011—$26 million to $52 million.
Contributing to soaring profits was Craigslist shutting down its “adult services” section in September 2010 in response to pressure from Congress and public criticism that it was facilitating child sex trafficking. Much of the business then migrated to Backpage.
Another major factor in Backpage’s revenue growth was its principals placing profits ahead of everything—including children. Instead of turning away customers by refusing to place their ads, they devised an elaborate scheme to sanitize ads containing words indicating criminal activity—namely prostitution and selling children for sex—by automatically filtering and manually removing the offending terms.
As Backpage profits exploded and public outcry and official scrutiny grew commensurately, Ortega stepped in to protect his bosses’ enterprise that was soon to generate well over $100 million a year, while defending his own paycheck.
In June 2011, as Voice editor, he took the lead in a concerted campaign to trivialize child sex trafficking as a “small problem,” decrying congressional action that effectively shut down Craigslist’s prostitution ads. “The First Amendment was shouted down in the name of children,” he wrote in an editor’s note. Not that Ortega cared about Craigslist, but he and his bosses knew Backpage was next.
Ortega was all in with Backpage, and there was no turning back—but he needed a diversion to avoid scrutiny.
That month, Ortega’s anti-Scientology blogging on The Village Voice website went into overdrive, with near-daily posts aimed at denigrating Scientologists and ridiculing their religion.
Ortega’s obsession backfired as Scientologists drew more and more unwanted attention to Backpage’s ill-gotten profits and Ortega’s part in the operation. In September 2012, Ortega was out, fired by Lacey and Larkin, desperate to reduce the light and heat from media and law enforcement now focused on Backpage.
According to Mark Rathbun, Ortega showed up at his door in South Texas within days of his ouster from the Voice and confided that his severance deal included a two-year buyout in exchange for his silence about Backpage.
In July 2011, Ortega had written about Lacey and Larkin, “the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com.”
They weren’t “smart” enough.
Both were indicted for facilitating prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy in connection to Backpage, with Lacey facing trial in August 2023. Larkin evaded criminal responsibility when he took his own life on July 31.
As for Ortega, even though his diversionary tactics have served him to this point, they can’t work forever.