Courtroom proceedings are now in progress for the federal prostitution-facilitation and money laundering case against former Backpage.com owners and employees.
Backpage.com, the infamous and wildly profitable prostitution and sex trafficking classified advertising website, now faces justice in federal court—100 counts-worth, enough to put all the principals behind bars for life. The usual suspects are all there—cofounder Michael Lacey; former executive vice president of one of Backpage’s parent companies Scott Spear; former CFO John Brunst; former operations manager Andrew Padilla; and former assistant operations manager Joye Vaught.
Backpage cofounder James Larkin shot himself to death a few days before the trial was set to begin.
And then there is Tony Ortega.
“The people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com.” —Tony Ortega
Ortega was there on the ground floor during Backpage’s salad days. While the site raked in over $100 million a year, courtesy of prostitution and sex trafficking—often of children—Ortega, a staff hack, served as apologist, propagandist (“We’re First Amendment extremists that way”) and general smoke-and-mirrors-in-charge, doing his level best to ridicule critics and investigative reporters while profiting—along with his bosses—from the company’s despicable “work.”
Among the fruits of Backpage.com, disclosed by unsealed grand jury indictment five years prior:
Did Ortega know?
A dozen years ago he bragged, “the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com.”
While putting forth a front of openness, free speech and accountability, “the people Ortega worked for” engaged in an elaborately organized smokescreening of their dirty work. Instead of refusing ads they knew were dangerous and illegal, they pruned them of nasty offensive words such as “child sex” and “child prostitution,” substituting any red flag terms for something more warm and fuzzy.
Did Ortega know?
When the din of public outcry began to threaten his pocketbook and that of his bosses, he took action. In July 2011, he wrote an attack piece on an investigative journalist who had been looking under too many rocks and finding too much on the subject of child sex trafficking. Trivializing the problem, Ortega labeled it a nothing-burger concocted by the sensational press, hungry to foment a public “mass panic.” He ridiculed her statistics of 100-300,000 children sex trafficked as grossly incorrect. (He was right on that point. The actual figure is over a million per year.)
By the next year, Ortega was unemployed, Backpage’s in-house Goebbels no more.
But Ortega needed something else—some other “problem” to throw the attack dogs off the trail. He chose something at which he was already most adept: spreading propaganda against the Church of Scientology.
Ortega already had years of experience howling over the religion, which has only continued to expand its global good works. But that summer of 2011, he went into hyperdrive, writing blog after hysterical blog. With each new day, a new anti-Scientology blog was born, each one a desperate plea, “Don’t look here! There! Look over THERE!”
But the scheme backfired, as the needle of scrutiny pointed inexorably toward Backpage.com and its soiled hands. And by the next year, Ortega was unemployed, Backpage’s in-house Goebbels no more.
When Backpage.com’s parent, The Village Voice, ashcanned Ortega, his generous two-year severance deal came with the stipulation that he’d keep mum about all things Backpage.com, according to a former confidant.
The founder of Backpage.com, who destroyed lives and robbed helpless human beings of their childhood—who screamed about free speech while victimizing those who could not cry out—he will get what’s coming to him.
But what of Tony Ortega? He of the poison pen, so quick to scream foul and so eager to attack so long as he isn’t attacked back—what of him?
His hands reek with the blood of innocents.