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Backpage.com lawsuit against Cook County sheriff dismissed

Saturday, June 02, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Tessa Weinberg

A Federal judge dismissed Backpage.com’s lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart Thursday, bringing a three-year legal battle between the site and Dart to an end.

The dismissal comes after federal authorities in April seized Backpage.com, a site similar to Craigslist that’s been the target of law enforcement efforts for hosting advertisements for prostitution and human trafficking, and issued a 93-count indictment in Arizona against its executives and owners.

The lawsuit, first filed in 2015, alleged that Dart, a longtime opponent of online sites he views as furthering sex trafficking, had violated the platform’s free speech protections and ruined its business model by asking credit card companies to block their cards from being used to purchase ads on the site.

Dart said Friday that the dismissal was “huge.”

“There's a certain level of vindication,” Dart said in an interview.

"Neither we nor our client have a comment at this time," said Nanci Clarence, an attorney for site CEO Carl Ferrer.

U.S. District Judge John Tharp granted Dart’s motion to dismiss the site’s lawsuit, which Dart filed in April. In it, Dart argued Backpage.com “knowingly facilitated prostitution and human trafficking for years.”

CEO Ferrer pleaded guilty to a count of money laundering, and admitted in a plea agreement with prosecutors that he had “long been aware” a majority of the advertisements on the site were for prostitution, had conspired to find ways to facilitate the ads and had moderated them to create a “veneer of deniability.”

Dart also filed a motion against the site seeking to have it pay Cook County’s attorney’s fees and costs related to the drawn-out legal battle. The motion remains pending.

Dart first sent “cease-and-desist” letters to credit card companies in June 2015, notifying them of the site’s nature. Within 48 hours of Dart’s letter, Visa and MasterCard pulled their cards from the site. American Express already had stopped allowing the use of its cards on the site.

Dart said the companies pulling their cards from the site was the “linchpin” that led Backpage’s executives down a path of money laundering and crimes that ended with the site being shut down.

While Tharp denied a preliminary injunction request by Backpage in August 2015 that would have required Dart retract his statements in new letters to the credit card companies and pay for damages, Backpage continued to dupe the businesses, according to the plea agreement.

Dart’s motion for sanctions was the most recent against the site, which has long been under scrutiny by federal and state investigators.

Dart said numerous arrests, reverse sting operations and jail sentences were carried out because of Backpage’s dealings. “Countless lives were destroyed” by the site’s sinister underbelly in the Chicago area as well, Dart said.

One of the most prominent was that of 16-year-old Desiree Robinson, who was sold for sex online in 2016, and later killed in a Markham garage by a man who had answered an ad on Backpage. An autopsy found that she was beaten, strangled and had her throat cut.

Her case “shocked the conscience of everybody,” Dart said. "Unfortunately, it was not a unique case."

Her mother, Yvonne Ambrose, stood next to President Donald Trump in April as he signed into law a bill that gives federal and state prosecutors greater power to go after sites with advertisements promoting sex trafficking. Ambrose filed a lawsuit against the site and gave testimony before the U.S. Senate in support of the legislation.

tweinberg@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @tessa_weinberg




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