Backpage Trial, Sept. 26: Paul Cambria on point for the defense, judge digs "Driving Miss Daisy," and government witness Carl Ferrer fumbles.
Paul Cambria, attorney for veteran newspaperman and Backpage defendant Michael Lacey, took the lead on Tuesday, cross-examining former Backpage owner and CEO Carl Ferrer, the government’s star witness.
A longtime First Amendment advocate and former attorney for Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, Cambria’s booming voice and street-smart demeanor normally command the attention of the jury and the court. And his cross of Ferrer, which began with just five minutes to go before the jury was dismissed for the day, was no exception.
Following the day-long cross-examination of Ferrer by Bruce Feder, attorney for one of Lacey’s four co-defendants, ex-Backpage exec Scott Spear, Cambria, with five minutes left before the court was to adjourn, began by asking Ferrer about his pre-Backpage career as a classified ad sales supervisor with the Dallas Observer, one of several alternative weeklies once owned by Lacey and his business partner, Jim Larkin.
Larkin was one of Lacey’s co-defendants, and like Lacey, faced up to 100 counts of facilitating misdemeanor prostitution offenses in violation of the U.S. Travel Act and attendant money laundering and conspiracy charges. With most of his assets seized and looking down the barrel of a second trial in this five-and-a-half-year-long witch hunt, after the first ended in mistrial in 2021 due to prosecutorial misconduct, Larkin took his own life on July 31, just before the second trial was to begin.
Ferrer explained that in a print newspaper, ad salesmen would take information from an advertiser and help write the ad, trying to increase its length in the process because “they would make more money per word.”
“Always a gimmick,” cracked Cambria, who then went on to describe a hypothetical ad for a car for sale. The ad would detail a car with a “triple carburetor” and low mileage, as it had only been driven once a week on Sunday by “Miss Daisy.”
The ad was misleading, and the car was, in fact, nothing like it was described. Was the newspaper responsible for that, Cambria wondered?
Ferrer replied that “the newspaper wouldn’t be responsible,” adding, “We didn’t think we were liable in any way . . . if an ad was false.”
Cambria asked if the only way to verify the ad’s legitimacy was to “go over and check” out the car. Ferrer replied in the affirmative.
With the clock at 4:30 p.m., Judge Diane Humetewa called a halt to the testimony, dismissing the jury for the day.
In just five minutes, Cambria left the jury and the court with a simple, effective metaphor for the legal, adult-themed ads for escorts, massage, striptease, and dating that appeared in one section of Backpage before the government seized and destroyed it on April 6, 2018.
Indeed, the government argues that Lacey, who co-owned Backpage with Larkin before selling it to Ferrer in 2015, should be responsible for criminal acts by unknown others that allegedly took place as a result of these adult advertisements. And his four co-defendants, two former Backpage executives and two ex-employees, should be on the hook as well, according to prosecutors.
After the jury left, Humtewa commented in an aside that Driving Miss Daisy was one of her favorite films.
Ferrer in Tatters
Before Cambria took the lead, Bruce Feder grilled Ferrer, asking him at one point about how he had testified for prosecutors in criminal cases against pimps and traffickers, including four federal criminal trials.
Feder confronted Ferrer with his testimony in a federal trial in Florida. Under oath in that case, Ferrer testified that certain content was not allowed on Backpage.
Asked if that was true by Feder, Ferrer replied, “That was the company line.”
Feder read the transcript of Ferrer’s testimony, wherein Ferrer said, “specifically, in escorts we forbid . . . direct sex for money” language.
“Is it true that it is forbidden?” asked Feder.
“It is true as to the posting rules,” implying that it was not true on the site itself.
While being questioned by prosecutors over the past two weeks, Ferrer described himself as simply an employee of Backpage from 2004 till 2018, though he ran Backpage and Backpage was his idea, a way to compete with Craigslist.org. Ferrer bought the company in a seller-financed deal in 2015, and he had to pay back the principal and interest on a $600 million loan from Lacey and Larkin.
But Ferrer has described the sale as a “sham,” and he said that whenever he used the title “founder,” it was just for marketing purposes, because “founder” to him suggested ownership.
But at the Florida trial, Ferrer described himself as “the site founder and director of backpage.com.”
Asked about this by Feder, Ferrer said that the word “founder” was an exaggeration.
A tense exchange followed, where Feder asked Ferrer to explain the difference between an “exaggeration” and a falsehood.
Eventually, Ferrer answered that “both could be false, but one could be more egregious than the other.”
“So this is a little lie, not a big one?” asked Feder.
But Feder never got a straight answer out of Ferrer on that one. Humetewa advised Feder to “move on.”
Feder continued to interrogate Ferrer’s previous statements under oath in other proceedings. In one, Ferrer stated that Backpage did not know if the photos in an escort ad were of the person posting the ad.
Ferrer conceded that this was “true.” Backpage didn’t know who typed an ad’s text into the system, he said.
Ferrer also agreed that an ad’s photo could’ve been taken off another site altogether, and Backpage did not know the exact location of the computer where the ad was uploaded.
“It’s a user-generated content site,” he explained.
“You sell space to put up an ad,” Feder said.
Feder confronted Ferrer with another statement under oath, where Ferrer stated, “I run the website.”
Ferrer said this was true, but qualified that he was “the manager of 100-plus people,” who moderated and marketed the site.
Feder then went through a couple of emails from law-enforcement officials thanking Backpage for its assistance. In these cases, Backpage had even identified problematic ads by the same user on another site.
Ferrer downplayed this, saying it was a “publicity stunt” and a “misdirection.” Feder pointed out that law enforcement didn’t see it that way, with one officer writing that Backpage’s assistance was “much appreciated.”
Regarding these “attaboys” from various cops, Ferrer said, “Generally, they would state we were very helpful.”
Age Verification and a Sexy Ad
Feder asked Ferrer about the possibility of age verification on Backpage in 2011, when the site was in 400 cities across the U.S.
To have people come into an office to verify age and identity would have “shut down the site,” Ferrer said, but he suggested there was “another solution” that he preferred.
Feder confronted Ferrer with an affidavit the latter signed in 2012. In it, Ferrer swore under oath that ID verification would impose “an impossible burden” on the company.
Ferrer shot back, “I didn’t write this, but I did sign it.”
Feder asked about emails to and from Ferrer, Ferrer’s immediate supervisor Scott Spear, and Spear’s boss Jim Larkin, in which Larkin and Spear okayed a strict moderation plan in 2009. The plan stated, “We want to remove sex act pics and coded terms.”
Larkin wrote that he wanted the plan implemented “immediately, thoughtfully, and deliberately.”
Ferrer insisted this order was actually telling him not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Feder also confronted Ferrer with internal communications that showed Ferrer complaining about Backpage’s increasingly stern moderation of adult ads, with Ferrer calling it “bullshit.”
Feder put up an adult ad from Backpage on the court’s monitors. The ad was for a 32-year-old “totally amazing French beauty with perfect 36Ds” by the name of Sophie. The photo showed the upper body of a woman in a tight-fitting top, revealing some cleavage.
There was no sex-for-money language in the ad.
Feder asked how Ferrer could identify Sophie as a “prostitute.” Ferrer pointed to a link to a review site.
But Feder pressed him. Some sex acts for money were legal, Feder said. How did Ferrer know that an illegal sex act for money would occur as a result of this ad?
“I’m making an educated guess,” Ferrer replied.
Cross-examination continues Wednesday morning. For regular updates during breaks in the trial, follow me on X @stephenlemons.