SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBS SF/AP) — The operators of an international website that advertises escort services say they’ll challenge charges of trafficking prostitutes and pimping on First Amendment grounds.
Attorneys for the three men told reporters Wednesday that the Backpage.com CEO and two others will challenge the charges next month.
The three men made a brief appearance Wednesday afternoon in Sacramento County Court, appearing in orange jail uniforms.
Carl Ferrer, the 55-year-old CEO of Backpage.com, is charged with pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping, while 68-year-old Michael Lacey and 67-year-old James Larkin are charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Lacey and Larkin are the former owners of the Village Voice in New York City. California Attorney General Kamala Harris says they are the website’s controlling shareholders.
“Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal,” said Harris when Ferrer was arrested last week. “Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.”
Pimping includes making money from prostitutes or soliciting customers for prostitution.
A bail hearing was set for Thursday.
Backpage.com advertises a wide range of services, but the California arrest warrant alleges that internal business records obtained through a search warrant show that 99 percent its revenue came from its adult services section between January 2013 and March 2015. California officials said the site collects fees from users who use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.
Worldwide revenue from sex ads topped $3.1 million in just one week last year, according to a court affidavit. It says Ferrer expanded Backpage.com’s share of online sex marketing by creating affiliated sites including EvilEmpire.com and BigCity.com with related content.
Larkin and Lacey each received $10 million bonuses from the website in September 2014, according to the court filing. It says Backpage.com was created in 2004, but since 2014 has been owned by a Netherlands-based company that has Ferrer as its only named partner.
California authorities said the state’s three-year investigation found many of the ads include victims of sex trafficking including children under the age of 18.
The three are set to appear in Sacramento County Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon.
Their attorneys aren’t commenting.
Backpage’s lawyer called the arrests “an election year stunt” as Harris runs for the U.S. Senate.
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