39 new counts filed vs. Backpage despite judge’s earlier dismissal

24 Dec 2016

We thought we were done with the “Backpage as pimps” story — because a judge ruled it was bogus — but sadly, not just yet. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, who leaves office next month to move to the U.S. Senate, yesterday filed new pimping and money laundering charges against the operators of Backpage.com.

It’s tough to see how she (and her successor) will make these charges stick, especially in light of the harsh and unequivocal ruling on Dec. 9 by California Superior Court Judge Michael G. Bowman that earlier, similar charges violated federal law. But Harris said yesterday’s charges were based on new evidence.

Arraignment on the felony charges is scheduled Jan. 11 for Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners (or current owners, depending on whom you believe) Michael Lacey and James Larkin.

“By creating an online brothel — a hotbed of illicit and exploitative activity — Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin preyed on vulnerable victims, including children, and profited from their exploitation,” Harris said in her news release. “My office will not turn a blind eye to this criminal behavior simply because the defendants are exploiting and pimping victims on the Internet rather than on a street corner.”

The charges include 26 counts of money laundering, 13 counts of pimping and one count of conspiracy to commit pimping. The charge of money laundering states that the defendants conducted transactions “knowing … [they] represent the proceeds of, or is derived directly or indirectly from the proceeds of criminal activity.”

Since a judge has already ruled that there was no criminal activity involved, Harris will have an interesting time proving her case, especially if it goes before Bowman. (We could not determine whether he or another judge has been assigned this case.) Bowman ruled that Congress had expressly prohibited such prosecutions under the federal Communications Decency Act.

Attorney James Grant, representing the defendants, told the Los Angeles Times in an email that the new charges were a “rehash” of the ones that were thrown out already.

“Harris admitted in 2013 that her office cannot bring state-law charges against Backpage, and the Superior Court’s orders earlier this month confirmed this,” he said. “She cannot avoid First Amendment protections, federal law, or her obligations to follow the law, although her new complaint is a transparent effort to do exactly that.”

Here’s a PDF of the complaint.

The Phoenix New Times, the alternative weekly newspaper founded by Larkin and Lacey, has some excellent coverage here.

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Peter M. Zollman

Peter M. Zollman brings more than 35 years of media experience to his role as founding principal of the AIM Group / Classified Intelligence Report. He has worked with a wide range of media companies, dot-coms, technology providers and start-ups to develop and expand successful interactive-media services. He is based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., near Orlando.