Lawyers argue accused Backpage employees should keep prostitution ads off the site

PHOENIX (AP) — A former executive and two operations managers at the classifieds site worked vigorously to keep the platform free of prostitution advertising, even as strategies to do so continually changed, their lawyers said Tuesday at a federal trial in Phoenix.

It was the turn of defense attorneys for Scott Spear, Andrew Padilla and Joye Vaught to make opening statements against the charges of aiding and abetting prostitution and money laundering. They highlighted that all three have gone to great lengths to cooperate with authorities, whether through statements, sharing important user information or answering calls in the middle of the night.

“Backpage was considered the most cooperative website by law enforcement,” said Bruce Feder, former Vice President Spear’s attorney. “They thought they were fine. They wanted to drive perpetrators away from their website.”

Joy Bertrand described how Vaught “battled bad apples” for nine years. As assistant superintendent, Vaught sought to prevent the publication of advertisements that might appear to promote sexual acts or were simply “sleazy.” Bertrand read from an email Vaught sent to a staff moderator in 2014 in which he pointed out ads with multiple violations that had slipped through.

“She was proud of the job she had. She bragged about it,” Bertrand said. “When you see every single piece of government evidence, please view it with skepticism.”

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Padilla’s attorney described how he rose from an $11 job to full-time operations manager. At one point, he helped oversee 200 site moderators from an office in Dallas. But under Carl Ferrer, Backpage’s CEO, the standards for screening for potential prostitution ads were not clear, said attorney David Eisenberg.

“This system was constantly evolving, which created confusion in its work,” Eisenberg said. “Who is the guiding star here? Not my client.”

The three are co-defendants alongside Backpage founder Michael Lacey and former chief financial officer John Brunst, whose attorneys made opening statements last month.

This is the second prosecution of all five cases, which authorities say involved a plan to knowingly sell sex ads on the classifieds site.

All five have pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting prostitution. Of the five, Lacey and two others have pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges.

The first try ended in a mistrial in September 2021, when a judge concluded that prosecutors had too much evidence of child trafficking in a case where no one had faced such charges.

Lacey co-founded the weekly newspaper Phoenix New Times with James Larkin, who was charged in the case and died by suicide in July. Lacey and Larkin held stakes in other weekly newspapers such as The Village Voice and eventually sold their papers in 2013. However, they held on to Backpage, which authorities said had $500 million in revenue from its founding in 2004 through 2018 related to prostitution generated by the government closed.

Prosecutors say Backpage operators ignored warnings to stop running prostitution ads, some of which involved children. They are accused of giving free ads to prostitutes and making deals with others who worked in the sex trade to get them to post ads for the company.

Authorities say Backpage employees would gain more users by identifying prostitutes through Google searches, then calling them and offering them a free ad. The website is also accused of entering into a commercial arrangement that would place advertisements on another website where customers could post reviews of their experiences with prostitutes.

Backpage’s operators said they never allowed sex advertisements and used humans and automated tools to try to remove such ads. They claim that the website’s content is protected by the First Amendment.

Prosecutors said the site’s moderation efforts were aimed at concealing the true nature of the ads.

Lacey is also accused of using cryptocurrencies and transferring money to foreign bank accounts to launder proceeds from the site’s advertising sales after authorities said banks raised concerns that they were being used for illegal purposes.

At trial, the Backpage defendants are barred from bringing up a 2013 memo from federal prosecutors in which they investigated the site and said at the time they found no evidence of a pattern of recklessness toward minors or admissions by key participants that the website was used for prostitution.

In the memo, prosecutors said witnesses testified that Backpage made significant efforts to prevent criminal behavior on its website and coordinated those efforts with law enforcement. The document was written five years before Lacey, Larkin and the other former Backpage operators were indicted in the Arizona case.

A Government Accountability Office report released in June 2021 said that the FBI’s ability to identify victims and sex traffickers declined significantly following the government’s seizure of Backpage due to law enforcement’s familiarity with the site and Backpage in general responded to requests for information.

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