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McCaskill says congressional investigation of Backpage continues even after CEO's arrest

McCaskill says congressional investigation of Backpage continues even after CEO's arrest

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Rob Portman, Claire McCaskill

Senate subcommittee on Investigations Chairman Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio listens at left as the subcommittee's ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-M., asks a question on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2016, during the subcommittee's hearing to review billing and customer service practices in the cable and satellite television industry. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON • Sen. Claire McCaskill says a congressional investigation of the web site Backpage as part of an overall investigation of online sex trafficking will continue despite the Thursday arrest of Backpage's CEO in California on human trafficking charges.

McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Rob Portman, D-Ohio, have battled with Backpage lawyers over CEO Carl Ferrer’s refusal to appear before their Senate investigations subcommittee, and to provide documents about how the online site screens to prevent online advertising of illegal sex, including sex with minors.

The two senators earlier this year were able to get the first contempt of the Senate vote in 20 years passed against Backpage and Ferrer.

Backpage fought it on 1st Amendment grounds, but lost in a federal appeals court, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a motion to stay that decision.

A federal judge has given Ferrer until Monday to “either certify in writing that he has produced all document it owes the Subcommittee or else explain why he should not be held in contempt. Contempt carries the sanction of monetary fines and/or imprisonment,” a statement from McCaskill and Portman says.

Ferrer was arrested Thursday on a felony warrant out of California alleging pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping.” Arrest warrants were also issued for two controlling shareholders of the company, and authorities searched the company headquarters in Dallas.

In a statement, Backpage attorney Liz McDougall said:

"The raid of Backpage.com’s Dallas office and the arrest of its CEO is an election year stunt, not a good-faith action by law enforcement...

"Backpage.com will take all steps necessary to end this frivolous prosecution and will pursue its full remedies under federal law against the state actors who chose to ignore the law, as it has done successfully in other cases."

Portman and McCaskill issued the following statement:

“For the past 18 months, we have led a bipartisan investigation into the scourge of online sex trafficking. That investigation led us directly to Backpage, an online marketplace that has been involved in hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including child exploitation. We certainly wish that Backpage had willingly cooperated with our investigation. Despite its refusal to do so, our investigation was the first to uncover Backpage’s practice of editing ads in manner that serves to conceal evidence of criminality. As law enforcement officials in Texas and California do their job, we will continue to press forward and complete our longstanding investigation.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who has also been involved in legislative action to try to combat sex trafficking, said that the arrest “means we are one step closer to holding Backpage accountable for underage internet sex trafficking through their site and stopping these illegal activities. “

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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