Attorney for Ex-Backpage Owner Michael Lacey: ‘He’s a fighter. He’s a First Amendment guy.’

color photo of criminal defense attorney Paul Cambria in suit and tie
Paul Cambria, attorney for former Backpage.com co-founder Michael Lacey, speaking to reporters outside Phoenix's federal courthouse in April 2018 (photo by Stephen Lemons)
Defense attorney Paul Cambria voiced strong opinions about the government's case against Backpage following ex-owner Michael Lacey's bond hearing in Phoenix

Looking as hale and hearty as a man can while clad in prisoner’s stripes, Michael Lacey inched closer to freedom on Wednesday afternoon during an appearance before a federal judge in Phoenix to determine the terms of his release.

The veteran journalist has been in federal custody since  his April 6 arrest on a 93-count indictment for allegedly facilitating prostitution through the online listings giant Backpage.com and attempting to launder the proceeds.

Attorneys for the prosecution and the defense had struck a deal on Lacey’s release conditions before Magistrate Judge Bridget Bade took her chair. Per the agreement, U.S. Pretrial Services will inspect Lacey’s home to make sure it is suitable for the GPS monitoring Lacey will be subject to. A final agreement on the release will be reviewed Friday morning in Bade’s courtroom.

Lacey is expected to be freed later that day on bond, which his criminal defense attorney Paul Cambria later told reporters would be $1 million, secured by real estate.

Before the conclusion of the brief conference, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Rapp told the judge that he thought Lacey could be brought up from federal custody “bag and baggage” on Friday.

In other words, ready to be cut loose.

Lacey’s longtime business partner, Jim Larkin, remains in detention pending the outcome of a hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon. The FBI arrested Lacey following a raid on his home this past Friday. According to court documents, agents pinched Larkin the same day after he returned from a trip to Europe.

The FBI also seized Backpage, slapping a notice on its home page announcing that it had been closed down as part of a multiagency “enforcement action.”

Of the seven current and former Backpage executives indicted, Lacey and Larkin are the only ones still in custody, notwithstanding the fact that they sold their interest in Backpage to company CEO Carl Ferrer, with whom they founded the venture in 2004.

Ferrer was not among those charged, though he is referred to throughout  the 60-page indictment by the initials “C.F.”

“If you take an ad out in the New York Times and it turned out to be a drug deal, what are you going to do, shut down the New York Times?” –defense attorney Paul Cambria on the government’s vilification of Backpage

The prosecution has singled out Lacey and Larkin as the criminal “masterminds” behind Backpage, claiming that the site’s adult and dating sections have long served as fronts for prostitution.

These same masterminds co-founded Front Page Confidential in 2017 to explore issues related to the First Amendment. Prior to that, they were the driving force behind the award-winning Village Voice Media chain of local newsweeklies, which had its roots in the Phoenix New Times, a paper they helped found in 1970.

Cambria, Lacey’s attorney, rejected outright the notion that a website should be held liable for misdeeds committed by its advertisers. He characterized the government’s actions in the Backpage case as “a First Amendment violation” that has broad implications.

“You should be able to speak freely — meaning, place your ad,” Cambria said. “But if you do something that violates the law, then you should be punished, not the host of the information.”

He continued, “I mean, if you take an ad out in the New York Times, and it turned out to be a drug deal or something, what are you going to do, shut down the New York Times?”

Backpage, which offered ads for everything from estate sales to puppy giveaways, shuttered its adult services section in January 2017, on the eve of a Senate inquiry into its business practices.

See Also:
“Feds Seize Backpage, Arrest Former Owners in Act of Direct Government Censorship”

“Federal Backpage Indictment: Bloated with Familiar Bluster; No Sex-Trafficking Charges”

In a recent Baltimore Sun opinion piece, Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a professor of criminology at George Mason University whose expertise is in human trafficking, observed that sites like Backpage bear the brunt of vilification even as prominent social-networking platforms continue to be misused by all manner of nefarious characters.

“If Backpage.com and Craigslist.org are being blamed for the actions of third parties, why isn’t Facebook.com under fire as well?” Mehlman-Orozco writes. “Especially considering that numerous sex traffickers utilize [Facebook’s] platform to recruit victims and have done so for years.”

Mehlman-Orozco bolstered her argument with references to specific cases of child sex traffickers and mega-pimps who recruited victims through Facebook.

To date, Facebook has not been the target of an FBI raid.

Was Backpage, as Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller noted recently on Twitter, simply “Small enough to jail?”

Asked how Lacey was holding up, Cambria accentuated the positive.

“He’s fine,” Cambria replied. “He’s a fighter. He’s a First Amendment guy. He was a newspaperman forever, and he’s used to defending freedom of speech.”

In the elevator headed for the ground floor of the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse, I asked Cambria how representing Lacey differs from defending another prominent member of his client list, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

Cambria responded with an offhand reference to the a racist serial killer’s failed attempt to assassinate Flynt in 1978 during an obscenity trial in Georgia. Cambria was nearby when Flynt was shot. Another member of the defense team was also wounded. Both survived, but the shooting left Flynt paralyzed for life.

“We got shot at when we’re defending Larry Flynt — that’s a little bit different,” Cambria noted. “This [case] is as pure free speech as it gets.”

Update April 12, 2018 5 PM: Jim Larkin was before Judge Bade again Thursday, and as with Lacey, the defense and the prosecutor have come to an agreement on Larkin’s conditions of release, for which Larkin must post a $1 million bond, secured by two properties.

However, Larkin, who appeared in court wearing the standard orange skivvies, will not be going home till Monday afternoon at the earliest. The court’s pretrial services officers still have to evaluate Larkin’s home to ensure it meets the requirements for location monitoring, and they informed the court they cannot do that until Monday morning.

Judge Bade continued the hearing until Monday, April 16 at 4 PM. Larkin, 68, will remain in stir at least until that time. In her minute entry, Bade ordered the U.S. Marshals to bring up Larkin “bag and baggage” from custody, meaning he’s likely to be cut loose then.

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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