PHOENIX (CN) — An attorney defending former executives of Backpage.com in federal court spent most of Tuesday attacking the credibility of the government’s key witness.
On the ninth day of testimony against former owners and operators of the classified ads website Backpage, accused of facilitating prostitution through its adult section, attorney Bruce Feder returned to claims he made in opening statements two weeks ago — that Carl Ferrer, the former Backpage CEO who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution when the website was seized in 2018, is lying to avoid prison time.
“You’ve agreed to help the government over the last few weeks, correct?” defense attorney Feder asked Ferrer, who is entering his third week on the witness stand. “If everything you said was untrue, but you still said what they wanted you to say, you might just get probation.”
Those who didn’t plead guilty when arrested for their involvement in the website in 2018, including Phoenix New Times founder Michael Lacey, face a 100-count indictment on charges of conspiracy, money laundering and facilitating prostitution, and could receive decadeslong sentences if convicted.
Ferrer has spent the last two weeks affirming those accusations. Adult ads posted between the company’s founding in 2004 and its seizure in 2018 were marketed as services like escorts and sensual massages, he said, but were actually “thinly-veiled” prostitution ads. Ferrer said he and the defendants knew that, and went to great lengths to stay in business despite knowingly breaking the law, violating the Travel Act by conducting the illegal business in all 50 states.
During cross-examination Tuesday, Feder asked Ferrer about letters from police agencies across the country thanking Backpage for cooperating with subpoenas and helping to bust prostitution rings misusing the website. Ferrer said the company’s responses to subpoenas were limited, part of a “public relations stunt” to appear helpful while protecting the company’s bottom dollar.
“I wouldn’t call it help,” he said. “It was a misdirection. Some of the information wasn’t useful.”
Feder later referenced emails sent by Ferrer in 2011 to his client, former Backpage Vice President Scott Spear, that implied defendants wanted to rid the site of prostitution ads, and it was actually Ferrer who wanted them to stay.
“This overzealous focus on moderation at the expense of other development is a lot of bullshit and I hope there is an end to it,” Ferrer wrote in one email.
Feder tried other tactics in an attempt to catch Ferrer in lies.
Feder referenced Ferrer’s past testimony, in which he referred to the Erotic Review, a prostitution review website that adult advertisers on Backpage would often link to, as the “secret sauce” to the success of Backpage’s adult section.
“You really say law enforcement didn’t know about TER?” Feder asked, referencing a list of publications, including Playboy Magazine and New York Magazine, that wrote about the Erotic Review.
Ferrer explained that he didn’t mean it was a literal secret — only that executives never brought it up while communicating with law enforcement.
“They never asked, and I never disclosed,” he said.
Feder later discussed Ferrer’s use of the word “founder” when describing his role in 2010. Ferrer said he aided in creating the idea for the company, but didn’t like the word founder because it implies ownership, which he had none of at the time. He explained that he served as a sales director, but would often sign emails as founder for marketing purposes.
“I’m trying to make myself sound more important, and I shouldn’t be doing it,” Ferrer said.
“So this is a little lie, not a big one?” Feder asked.
Ferrer said he should have been more clear.
“So this is a little lie, not a big one?” Feder repeated, louder this time.
Ferrer again didn’t answer, and Feder asked a third time before the judge demanded he move on.
U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa, appointed by Barack Obama, issued stern warnings to counsel on both sides after Feder mentioned Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Established in 1995, Section 230 removes civil liability from service providers for harmful or illegal content published on their sites, so long as the provider doesn’t contribute to the content in any way other than removing obscene or illegal content.
Backpage’s team says Section 230 would give it immunity if it acted solely as a third-party host of information. But Humetewa ruled weeks ago that Section 230 doesn’t apply to violations of federal criminal law. She prohibited either side from mentioning it to the jury.
Lacey’s attorney Paul Cambria took over cross examination for just 10 minutes after Feder wrapped up at the end of the day. He will continue cross-examination, expected to last at least another week, Wednesday morning. The trial is set to last through late November, though Humetewa hopes it will conclude before Thanksgiving.Follow @JournalistJoeAZ
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