PhotoCalifornia Attorney General Kamala D. Harris has filed new criminal charges against top executives of Backpage.com, accusing them of money laundering and pimping.

Similar charges were thrown out just a few weeks ago by a Sacramento judge, but Harris -- who will soon leave her post to be sworn in as a U.S. Senator, replacing the retiring Barbara Boxer -- says her office has developed new evidence that justifies refiling charges against what she has called the "world's top online brothel."

Backpage is a classified advertising site that its operators say merely provides a platform for individuals and businesses to communicate with each other. But Harris says the site is engaging in criminal behavior.

"Online brothel"

“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,” said Harris. “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."

Ferrer is the site's CEO. Lacey and Larkin are its controlling shareholders.

The latest charges include 26 counts of money laundering. The complaint alleges that the defendants created multiple corporate entities to launder money and circumvent the refusal of financial institutions to process Backpage transactions because of overtly sexual material. 

The defendants are also charged with 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.  In seven of the pimping counts, the victims are children. Additionally, the complaint alleges that the defendants created other sites to increase the company’s prostitution-related revenue and developed content for those sites by using victim’s photographs or information without their knowledge.  

The site's lawyers have previously cited the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects online publishers from liability for user postings and pre-empts state criminal laws. Harris and other state attorneys general have lobbied for an amendment to the CDA that would allow them to go after web publishers but have been unsuccessful.

The Los Angeles Times quoted an attorney representing the three as saying the latest charges are a "rehash" of the earlier complaints and will not survive a First Amendment and CDA challenge.


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