The U.S. Senate unanimously voted Thursday to hold in contempt the CEO of a website that is thought to be one of the leading sexual traffickers of children in the United States.
By a vote of 96-0, the Senate held Carl Ferrer, CEO of Backpage.com, in civil contempt after he refused to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations. The committee is chaired by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Portman and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, have repeatedly asked Ferrer to testify before the committee, even subpoenaing him. The subcommittee has sought information on how the website moderates ads, whether it takes down ads that are obviously selling a minor for sex and whether it edits ads to allow those selling minors for sex to evade law enforcement.
But after 10 months of trying, the two decided to hold Ferrer in contempt to legally require him to provide information to the subcommittee. The full Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee voted to hold Ferrer in contempt Feb. 10.
The company, Portman said on the Senate floor, “has not been willing to cooperate with the committee and unfortunately, we’re at the point where we have to seek the enforcement of our subpoena.”
He said Backpage.com appears to be the market leader in the online exploitation of children, receiving $8 out of every $10 spent on the online commercial sex advertising in 2013. He said over the last five years, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has reported an over 800 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking — most linked to the increase use of the Internet to sell children for sex.
He said in one recent lawsuit against the site, the plaintiff was a 15-year-old girl who had been raped more than 1,000 times because of being advertised on Backpage.com.
The Senate has not held anyone in civil contempt in at least 20 years. In December 1995, the Special Committee to Investigate the Whitewater Corporation and Related Matters reported a resolution for civil contempt against William Kennedy, former Associate Counsel for President Clinton. The full Senate passed the resolution by a vote of 51-45. But Kennedy produced documents after the resolution was passed, and no action was filed in court.
The civil contempt resolution will now go to federal court in order to force the company to turn over the documents.
“We have given Backpage.com every opportunity to comply with a lawful subpoena, but they have continued to stonewall,” Portman and McCaskill said in a joint statement. “Backpage.com’s ongoing obstruction of this investigation will not be tolerated. Our goal is to uncover how sex traffickers get away with selling countless victims through online black markets, so that Congress can devise legislation to more effectively combat this heart-breaking crime.”
At a hearing last November, Portman said while Ferrer could invoke his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself, he had no right to not show up.
He said Ferrer’s attorneys told the subcommittee that they hadn’t even looked for some of the information requested by the subcommittee.