BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - The former CEO of the gay escort website Rentboy.com pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges accusing him of running an online brothel.
Jeffrey Hurant did not issue any comment after the 30-minute hearing, which drew about 20 supporters to the courthouse, condemning the charges as persecution of the gay community.
"This is a witch hunt," gay-rights activist Allen Roskoff said outside the courtroom.
"It's a major invasion of the rights in the gay community," added Roskoff, who describes himself as a co-author of the nation's first gay-rights bill.
A federal grand jury indicted 50-year-old Hurant, who also uses the last name Davids, last month on two counts of using his parent company Easy Rent Systems as a front to promote prostitution and to launder money.
Before authorities shut it down in August 2015, Rentboy.com got about 500,000 unique visitors each day, most of them from the United States. Prosecutors say the website Hurant founded in 1997 took in at least $10 million in gross revenue.
Hurant and his staff charged advertisers up to nearly $300 per ad, according to the indictment, which says clients were encouraged to advertise their penis size, build, indicate whether they had foreskin, and whether they preferred to have safe sex or bareback sex.
The website also allegedly allowed details about rates in the ads.
Prosecutors say employees would monitor escorts' ads and reject them if they were too fishy, and would send out email notices to clients such as: "Your text has not been approved. All texts need to avoid saying you will have sex for money, since that is illegal in most places in the world."
There was one caveat to escorts faced with regard to advertising their physical attributes, the government said.
"If you describe a sex act to be performed in exchange for money, the authorities may use it as evidence in prosecuting you," as quoted in the indictment.
Prosecutors say Rentboy.com workers also helped advertisers spice up their posts. The indictment quotes one email to an alleged client as saying: "Hey, I took the liberty of spicing up your RB ad - we need you WORKING, babyyy!"
Rentboy.com is accused of doing business with men named Viktor Berki, Andras Vass and Gabor Acs, who lured Hungarian men into the United States and forced them "into sexual slavery."
Vass was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Berki and Acs still await trial.
Prosecutors say Rentboy also failed to verify ages of those who advertised on its site, especially in Asia since at least 2006.
Hurant was released on a $350,000 bond after his August arrest and has defended his enterprise as perfectly legal.
At Wednesday's hearing, the CEO was represented by Michael Tremonte of Sher Tremonte in New York.