SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s attorney general said Friday that she was pursuing new pimping charges against the operators of Backpage.com, a website that advertises escort services, just two weeks after a judge tossed an earlier case.
Kamala Harris, an incoming U.S. senator, said she has charged Backpage executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin with 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. They also are charged with 26 counts of money laundering.
Harris said the new charges are based on new evidence. They come after a Sacramento County judge threw out pimping charges against the men on Dec. 9, citing federal free-speech laws.
In the latest case, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, Harris claims Backpage illegally funneled money through multiple companies and created various websites to get around banks that refused to process transactions.
She also alleged that the company used photos of women from Backpage on other sites without their permission to increase revenue and knowingly profited from the proceeds of prostitution.
“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,” Harris said in a statement.
Jim Grant, a lawyer for the three defendants, said the charges rehash the earlier case that was dismissed.
“AG Harris admitted in 2013 that her office cannot bring state-law charges against Backpage, and the Superior Court’s orders earlier this month confirmed this,” Grant said in an email. “She cannot avoid First Amendment protections, federal law or her obligations to follow the law, although her new complaint is a transparent effort to do exactly that.”
Harris was among 47 state attorneys general who asked Congress in 2013 to help change a provision of the Communications Decency Act that they acknowledged protected Backpage from prosecution. The act protects companies from content posted by third parties.
The state attorney general is doubling down on pimping charges in her final days before resigning to take her seat in the U.S. Senate.
Harris has alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage’s revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.
Judge Michael Bowman sided with lawyers for the executives and the company in a ruling earlier this month, saying the website was engaged in free speech allowed under the Communications Decency Act.
In the earlier case, Ferrer, 55, Backpage’s CEO, was charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, both from Arizona, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Lacey and Larkin, the website’s former owners, used to own a chain of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Village Voice in New York City.