SEX TRAFFICKING WEBSITE’S LOUDEST PROMOTER AND DEFENDER
Tony Ortega was a low-level writer and editor who had been bounced around the New Times alternative weekly circuit, running from trouble he caused with fictitious stories, when he was parachuted in as editor of The Village Voice in 2007. In September 2012, he left just as abruptly as he had arrived and since then has been jobless, grinding out a blog devoted solely to manufacturing “controversy” about the Church of Scientology.
Some say Ortega was forced out because he diverted so much of the Voice’s dwindling resources to feed his obsession with the Church of Scientology. In the year leading up to his ouster, Ortega posted 465 stories about the Church on the Voice blog. The New York Observer disclosed that Ortega lost his job for neglecting the work he was paid to do—edit the publication—in favor of blogging his personal daily rants against Scientology. A staffer at the Voice complained, “He was increasingly obsessed with Scientology and had neglected almost all of his editorial duties at the paper. Sometimes he wouldn’t even edit features.”
Likewise, online news site Capital New York (now Politico New York) called him “almost obsessive” about Scientology, reporting, “Sources told Capital that both the newsroom and the sales side of the Voice had become increasingly uncomfortable with the volume of Scientology coverage Ortega was churning out.” One former Voice staffer told Capital, “We thought it was destroying the Voice brand.”
Others tell a broader and more significant story, backed by Ortega’s own statements shortly after he was fired from the Voice—that the Church’s investigation of Backpage.com drew too much attention from law enforcement to the profits Village Voice Media was reaping from the illicit sex trade promoted in personals ads on the Voice website. Authorities say the site had brought in $500 million in prostitution-related revenue since its inception in 2004.
Ortega had been put in place at the Voice as a buffer—some say fall guy, others say shill—for his bosses, Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey. By the time Ortega was let go in 2012, reportedly receiving a two-year payout in exchange for his silence, Backpage faced attacks from the Attorneys General of 48 states, from media including the New York Times and CNN, and from a broad array of churches and human rights groups.
When Village Voice Media reorganized in September 2012, Ortega was out and the Village Voice and Backpage.com had split into two entities. In April 2018, Backpage.com and affiliated sites were seized by the FBI and shut down, its principals under criminal prosecution. On August 31, 2018, its cash cow gone, Village Voice, which had downsized to online only in 2017, closed its doors entirely.
This is the story of how an underqualified reporter from an alternate news weekly owned by Village Voice Media found a home at the chain’s flagship publication where he served as a ferocious defender of online sex trafficking. Since 2012 he has sat on the fringes of the internet scratching out a living selling ads on his blog and the occasional story tip to the tabloids.
When Ortega arrived at the Village Voice in 2007, he walked into a maelstrom of criticism from longtime staff and other media who pointed to his lack of experience, his despicable record of false stories, and his lack of knowledge of New York culture, long the stock in trade of the Voice. His New York experience totaled three semesters at Columbia University before dropping out in the early 1980s, nearly 30 years earlier.
Ortega had little to no familiarity or knowledge of what New York readers wanted from an alternative weekly. He had come from an obscure South Florida weekly, New Times Broward-Palm Beach, by way of New Times Phoenix, Los Angeles and Kansas City. By the time he landed in South Florida, he was best known as the guy who made up stories as “parody” that were anything but funny to the people they victimized. [See “Purveyor of Fake News.”]
Caught out more than once for publishing fiction as fact would have gotten him the boot at any other publication and ended his career as a writer, but not at Village Voice Media. It landed him a job at the struggling Voice, where his mission seemed to be to follow orders from his bosses and keep Backpage.com in place—and edit the paper, although by this time the cash cow Backpage was of greater interest than doing any journalism.
When Ortega arrived in New York, many writers in the Voice stable had already jumped ship, and he fired or drove off the remaining skeleton crew—investigative reporter Wayne Barnett, veteran reporter Tom Robbins (who quit in protest of Ortega’s hiring), and longtime film critic J. Hoberman. With those departures, 50-plus years of New York institutional knowledge walked out the door.
With the editorial heart of the Voice gutted, Ortega showed great industry in his new role as outspoken proponent of the Voice sex-trade site—including prostitution of children—that paid his salary and kept the paper alive.
Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times:
“Behind the tens of thousands of Backpage ads investigated by law enforcement there are victims with stories much like ‘Alissa,’ who over a two-year period ‘was sold to johns seven days a week, 365 days a year,’ was transferred like chattel from pimp to pimp for roughly $10,000 per transaction, and had her jaw and ribs broken when she tried to escape.”
Kristof also wrote:
“Attorneys general from 48 states wrote a joint letter to Backpage, warning that it had become ‘a hub’ for sex trafficking and calling on it to stop running adult services ads. The attorneys general said that they had identified cases in 22 different states in which pimps peddled underage girls through Backpage.”
The attorneys general cited a 15-year-old girl who was being forced to have sex with men in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The pimp marketed the girl through Backpage.
Several U.S. Senators were moved to make their own voices heard in a letter that stated in part:
“We believe, as the leading U.S. website for prostitution advertising, Backpage.com can create a significant impact on this appalling industry by shutting off a major source of advertising for these practices—the adult services section of the website.”
Others added their voices: “What will it take to make Village Voice Media take down its smutty classified website Backpage.com, which facilitates sex slavery?” wrote Kirsten Powers of the Daily Beast.
Clergy and human rights activists protested outside the Voice office, demanding an end to sex trafficking ads on Backpage.com. Government officials demanded investigations.
Ortega went after anyone who exposed the website, which by then was raking in more than $30 million a year from its exploitation of men and women, boys and girls, through its prostitution ads. Ortega launched a personal offensive against CNN reporter Amber Lyon after the airing of her “Uncovering America’s Dirty Little Secret” that exposed the links between Backpage and child prostitution.
Ortega wrote: “CNN leads the media’s mass paranoia. She has set out to take down a new target: Village Voice Media.” He criticized the broadcast as a “sensationalistic piece” and “manipulative,” describing Lyon’s demand to shut down Backpage as “involvement in a semi-religious crusade.”
Ortega claimed that the Voice had instituted procedures to identify and eliminate ads that potentially involved underage girls. The truth is that the Voice did not reject these ads, but coached advertisers in how to edit them to cover up that they were advertising sex with children. A U.S. Senate subcommittee cited these very efforts at editing ads as evidence that Village Voice personnel facilitated Backpage.com’s illegal activity.
Despite Ortega’s efforts, public pressure to close down Backpage escalated. When Ortega arrived to give a speech at Cal State Fullerton, his alma mater, the audience was sparse and a throng of vocal protesters reviled him for profiting from the sex trafficking of minors. The only response Ortega could muster: “They don’t really understand what’s going on.”
Part of Ortega’s operation as defender of Backpage.com was to generate stories for the Voice, as well as the other Village Voice Media publications, in an attempt to undermine the scope and severity of the national sex trafficking epidemic. Despite statistics showing the reality, Ortega claimed child sexual trafficking was only a small problem, citing arrest numbers while not mentioning that arrest figures reflected but a fraction of the number of minors victimized by pimps on Backpage.com.
Ortega asserted that underage prostitution arrests were “only 800” per year for the entire country. His numbers were dwarfed by those of the Office of Juvenile Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice which estimated the number of prostitution arrests of persons under the age of 18 in the United States at about 1,550 per year—nearly double and likely still a low reflection of the situation.
A Hofstra University study reported 11,268 human trafficking survivors in New York State alone since 2000. “We’re really just scratching the surface with our estimate,” said Dr. Greg Maney, a Hofstra associate professor. “It really highlights how pervasive human trafficking is in the area and the scope of the tragedy.”
That number included only the survivors who had come forward. Mary Ann Finn, criminal justice professor at Georgia State University, and Ric Curtis, chair of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, took issue with the Ortega-Village Voice assertion of arrest statistics—just 827 for child prostitution nationally over the most recent decade.
“It significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests,” Finn said, and Village Voice Media has “a vested interest in minimizing the problem.”
Before his firing from Village Voice, Ortega faced pressure and condemnation from many groups fighting child prostitution and slavery: Groundswell (the social action group of the Auburn Theological Seminary); Polaris Project “For a World Without Slavery”; Rebecca Project for Human Rights “advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls”; National Council of Jewish Women; National Organization for Women, and a host of others—National Association of Attorneys General, U.S. Senators and Representatives, and mayors from across the country.
Backpage.com came to the attention of the Church of Scientology in the course of the Church-sponsored human rights initiative and because Ortega had hijacked the Village Voice weblog as his personal rant platform for stories attempting to manufacture prejudice against Scientology. When he wasn’t defending Backpage.com, he was writing obsessively about Scientology in multiple posts per day. It did not take long to discover Ortega’s defense of Backpage.com and add the Church’s voice to the widespread call for action.
The mounting and ultimately successful efforts by law enforcement officials and human rights activists, including the Church of Scientology, to shut down Backpage was no small threat to James Larkin and Michael Lacey, Village Voice Media and Backpage.com owners, and their shill Tony Ortega. With Backpage revenue supporting their personal opulent lifestyles and keeping their publishing ship afloat, Larkin and Lacey had reason to worry.
The last thing they wanted was government and public attention drawn to the Voice and Backpage, which is exactly what Ortega’s compulsive blogging was doing. And the Church’s exposés were, as Ortega later admitted to a confidant, “more accurate than anyone thought.” That confidant revealed that to end the magnet for unwanted attention to the Voice and to Backpage, Ortega had to go. But he knew too much, so on the way out he was bought off with a confidential but reportedly handsome severance package. Ortega’s end of the bargain was to keep his mouth shut regarding anything he knew about Backpage.com.
Ortega concocted a story that made his departure appear voluntary, then stepped down to what became a permanent position as an unemployed blogger in New York. Today he continues to indulge his obsession with Scientology from his apartment, local coffee shops or wherever he can set up his laptop to turn out fabricated tidbits about the religion and its members.
The Backpage story continued to unfold. In October 2016, the Attorney General of California filed criminal charges against Lacey, Larkin and Village Voice Media CEO Carl Ferrer on charges of prostitution and sex trafficking. These opened the door to federal action that finally proved to be Backpage.com’s undoing.
When the site was seized by the federal government and permanently shut down in April 2018, Ferrer pleaded guilty in state courts in California and Texas and federal court in Arizona to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. He also agreed to testify against his Backpage cofounders Larkin and Lacey.
In August 2018, Dan Hyer, Backpage sales and marketing director, pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate prostitution, acknowledging that he participated in a scheme to give free ads to prostitutes in a bid to draw them away from competitors and win their future business.
The closing of Backpage.com was hailed as a major victory in the fight against the online sex trade. “There is no one in the entire world who made more money off sex trafficking than the owners of this website,” Maggy Krell, a former assistant attorney general in California who worked on the case, told the Washington Post. “Seeing it shut down and having their business model become illegal is really gratifying.”
This was too late for 16-year-old Desiree Robinson, who was brutally murdered on Christmas Eve 2016 after being sold on Backpage. Her pimp, Joseph Halzey, was convicted in March 2019 for trafficking Robinson and faces a life sentence. And Desiree Robinson was just one of many victims of the trafficking site.
Tony Ortega, the loudest promoter and defender of Backpage, remains silent and out of view of federal prosecutors, uttering not a word about Backpage since his 2012 departure from Village Voice with a hush money deal.