SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The operators of an international website advertising escort services will be allowed to post bail while they await trial on charges of pimping by trafficking prostitutes, a California judge decided Thursday.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman ruled after a secret hearing that the Backpage.com operators have enough assets that are not tied to the website, which California authorities allege are ill-gotten gains that should not be used to post bail.
The California attorney general’s office charges that the website brought in millions of dollars each month through thinly disguised online advertisements for commercial sex, some involving minors.
Backpage attorney Liz McDougall said the site’s chief executive, Carl Ferrer, 55, would post $500,000 bail Thursday. Ferrer is charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.
The former owners of the Village Voice in New York City, Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 67, would post $250,000 each, she said. They are charged with conspiracy to commit pimping. The Arizona men, who also once owned the Phoenix New Times alternative weekly, are Backpage’s controlling shareholders, according to state authorities.
McDougall and other attorneys representing the three men declined comment.
The attorney general’s office did not oppose allowing the three to post bail, said spokeswoman Kristin Ford, nor has it attempted to freeze the website’s assets or shut it down.
The attorney general’s office alleges that more than 90 percent of Backpage.com’s revenue comes from adult escort ads. By charging for the ads, the state says the three men violated California’s law against pimping, defined as making money off prostitutes or soliciting customers for prostitution.
Defense attorneys said the three will challenge the charges at a Nov. 16 hearing. They said the charges violate First Amendment free speech protections and a federal law that blocks state actions against websites that distribute content created by others.
Reporters and others were barred from the hearing under a California law designed to protect private financial affairs.
The Associated Press objected to barring the media from the hearing, but the law allows a judge to close evidentiary hearings at the request of anyone who is providing any portion of the bail money.
Attorneys would not say who requested the closure. Clyde Blackmon, one of Ferrer’s attorneys, cited the penal code section.
“That’s all I can tell you,” he said. “That allows the courtroom to be closed.”