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Government, Politics & Issues

Backpage.com faces Senate contempt proceeding

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Flickr | McCaskill | April 2015
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Updated at 4:30p.m., Feb. 10, 2016, to include congressional committee contempt vote -  A U.S. Senate committee Wednesday called for contempt proceedings against a website accused of aiding the sex-trafficking trade.

The panel voted unanimously in favor of a resolution from Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ohio Republican Rob Portman. McCaskill says the two have been conducting a bipartisan investigation of sex-trafficking and want to question officials from Backpage.com.
 
"We have reached an impasse with Backpage. They have refused to come to the hearings. They have refused to present documents."
 
If the resolution is approved by the full Senate, it would mark the first time in more than two decades the chamber has held anyone in contempt of Congress. 
 
McCaskill says she helped launch the investigation after a 15-year-old sex-trafficking victim walked into Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis last year and asked for help.
 
Our original story:
 
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says 71 percent of the child sex trafficking reports it receives involve ads posted to the website Backpage.com.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says that was the case four months ago when a 15-year-old girl walked into St. Louis’ Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital asking for help: “Along with four other girls, between the ages of 12 and 18, she had been sold for sex at truck stops across Missouri, Florida, Texas and New Mexico for almost two months.”

McCaskill added that the young girl was lucky to be alive, noting that the police report said another girl traveling with her during those two months had died.

McCaskill told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that, like the “majority of children who are sold for sex in the United States today,” this young girl was “trafficked using Backpage.com.”

The committee has been trying for months to get information from officials at the Backpage.com website about its policies on the placement, review and editing of such advertisements under its Adult Services heading.

Committee Chairman Rob Portman, R-Ohio, says that, to date, the company has refused to cooperate with committee investigators and has refused even to search for requested documents.

Making the case

The subcommittee had planned to conduct Thursday’s hearing with two separate panels of witnesses. The first included Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She was joined by Darwin Roberts, deputy attorney general from Washington State.

Washington enacted the first state-level legislation criminalizing human trafficking in the U.S. and has since approved several additional laws to combat human trafficking.

At the conclusion of the first panel’s hour and a half of testimony, Portman excused the witnesses. Their name tags were replaced with one for Carl Ferrer, CEO of Backpage.com LLC. Portman then convened the second panel and called for Ferrer to come forward.

Silence.

The witness chair sat empty. Audience members quietly looked around the room. Ferrer did not appear.

None of this came as a surprise to Portman or McCaskill. Rather, the two were methodically establishing an official record for the committee’s next legal steps.

After several minutes, Portman explained in careful detail how the committee considered Ferrer’s refusal to appear to be “a clear act of contempt” and how the committee had communicated with both Ferrer and the company’s attorney about the subpoena sent to Ferrer. The committee had advised them that it would not accept “logistical” issues as a reason for Ferrer’s absence. Nonetheless, Portman said, on Monday, the company’s attorney said that Ferrer would not attend the hearing and that,even if he were to attend, he would exercise his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Silence OK, but appearance required

Portman acknowledged individuals' rights not to answer questions, but he said no one has the right to ignore to a congressional subpoena, adding that the committee would consider asking the Department of Justice to pursue contempt proceedings against Ferrer.

As the ranking Democrat on the committee and a former sex crimes prosecutor, McCaskill echoed Portman’s comments, pledging that, while the committee would proceed carefully, it would not be deterred in pursing its investigation and legal options against Ferrer.

“The laws of this country should apply to everyone, and we should take all steps necessary to make sure that we fulfill our obligations under the law," McCaskill said, noting that under the law, the Senate is entitled to ask witnesses to appear before it and for them to answer questions and provide information.

“I think it’s important that we be steadfast in our resolve to get the information that we need in order to make sure that the public policy in this country is effective when it comes to children being victims,” said McCaskill. “This isn’t an exercise in having a hearing, this is an exercise in making sure that we have done everything in the law to protect children.”

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