The federal trial of Michael Lacey finally is underway in Phoenix, with Lacey charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
Lacey and partner Jim Larkin, who committed suicide on July 31, created an empire of 17 weekly newspapers, rebranding their New Times Media company as Village Voice Media with their acquisition of The Village Voice in 2005.
But it was the notorious classified ad website, Backpage.com, that got the pair in serious trouble with the law. In 2018, the federal government charged that Backpage was a conduit for procurers who used lewd ads to solicit customers for their sex trafficking victims, including underage girls and boys.
The operation, which enabled and encouraged the sexual abuse of children, netted Lacey and Larkin’s company over $500 million in prostitution-related revenue during its 14 years of existence.
And who was the biggest defender and enabler of the salacious online classified ad business?
None other than Tony Ortega, whose 465 maniacal online diatribes against the Church of Scientology resulted in him losing his job as editor of The Village Voice in 2012.
What ignited Ortega’s animus toward the Church of Scientology? The Church was part of the massive nationwide campaign to shut down Backpage, threatening the Village Voice Media empire and Ortega’s salary.
“Backpage Tony” became the champion of Backpage, sheltering behind the First Amendment to the Constitution and fiercely defending the classified ad cesspool as constitutionally protected speech.
“The First Amendment was shouted down in the name of children,” Ortega the “patriot” loudly declared. “[R]eformers, the devout, and the government-funded have turned their guns upon Village Voice Media.”
That constitutional argument notwithstanding, the grand jury indictment notes that prostitution is illegal in 49 states and most of Nevada and therefore advertisements for prostitution in those locations do not fall under First Amendment protection.
Ortega even bragged that his bosses, Lacey and Larkin, “were smart enough to start Backpage.com, a competitor to Craigslist,” another online platform once promoting prostitution.
But at Backpage.com, they went even further. As revealed by a 2017 congressional investigation, there was “sanitizing” of the Backpage ads, dropping references like “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “fresh” and “Lolita” in an attempt to pass inspection and survive scrutiny from the U.S. Senate, law enforcement and human rights advocates, including the Church of Scientology.
Ortega became the pimps’ best friend, fighting to keep their blatant, and highly profitable, prostitution advertising site alive and kicking and bringing in the money.
However, his best efforts were all for nothing. Backpage.com finally was shut down by the federal government in 2018.
After he was fired from the Voice, Tony went on a no-holds-barred crusade against the Church of Scientology. The one thing he has not done is keep quiet—except about Backpage.
With his old buddy and former boss on trial, facing charges that could put Lacey in prison for the rest of his life, Tony Ortega is nowhere to be seen. Here is his golden chance, with a major federal trial underway, to bray and pontificate over every social media and journalistic outlet, gaining the publicity he dearly loves.
But no—Tony instead has gone to ground, keeping quiet, avoiding being tied to his Backpage past. He doesn’t want anyone to be reminded that he once was the chief defender of a website that enabled the victimization of underage girls and boys for purposes of profiting from their sexual exploitation.
Facing trial with Lacey are four other defendants who worked on Backpage.com. Tony may fear that if federal officials decide to file a new indictment, he could be joining his old pals in the courtroom.
Each of 50 counts of facilitating prostitution carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and each of the 48 money laundering counts a sentence of up to 20 years.
Two other defendants—former Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and sales and marketing director Dan Hyer—already have pleaded guilty. Ortega is not involved in the trial, and he most certainly does not want to be.
In opening arguments August 31, Lacey’s attorney, Paul Cambria, claimed that Lacey was not involved in the day-to-day operations of Backpage.com. Andrew Stone, assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, stated that the Backpage ads contained language that included code words for prostitution. “And folks, prostitution is illegal,” he said.