Government, Carl Ferrer Mislead Jury about Michael Lacey, Village Voice Media, Backpage

Michael Lacey
Former Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey
The government's duplicity in the Backpage case bled into ex-owner Carl Ferrer's testimony Wednesday, as Ferrer mischaracterized award-winning journalist Michael Lacey's role at Village Voice Media.

Ex-Backpage owner Carl Ferrer’s testimony continued in Phoenix’s federal courthouse on Sept. 13, as did the government’s misinformation, half-truths, spin, and bad faith regarding its number one target: veteran newspaperman Michael Lacey, who co-owned the classified listings site from 2004 to 2015, along with his longtime business partner, the late Jim Larkin.

Lacey and four others — two execs and two employees of the company — face numerous counts of “facilitating” misdemeanor state prostitution offenses under the U.S. Travel Act due to ads for legal adult services that users posted to the site for escorts, dating, body rubs, stripping, and so on.

(These adult-themed ads shared space with countless other user-generated ads for car sales, apartment rentals, jobs, etc.)

Ferrer, by contrast, copped a sweet plea deal with the feds, turning state’s evidence in exchange for prosecutors allowing him to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy — for which he is unlikely to do any time. According to defense filings, the government is allowing Ferrer to keep some of his assets.

This is unlike Lacey, who had nearly all of his assets seized by the government five-and-a-half years ago.

Lacey was not just an editor, he was VVM’s executive editor (screenshot via Internet Archive)

On the stand Wednesday, Ferrer explained how the Phoenix New Times (PNT) and Backpage were once part of the same company, Village Voice Media (VVM), a chain of 17 alternative weeklies that included Village Voice and the LA Weekly.  At one point, Ferrer said, Backpage’s moderation team, or part of it, was located in the New Times office building on 1201 E. Jefferson St. in Phoenix, where the editorial side of PNT was also housed.

Prosecutor Kevin Rapp asked Ferrer to identify the editor of the New Times in 2009/2010. Ferrer replied that Lacey was “editor for all the papers” in the chain, and that “his office is in the building” in Phoenix, implying that Lacey could usually be found in his office. Which is inaccurate.

Ferrer later added that Lacey was “a very hands-on editor,” and that, too, is misleading.

I worked at PNT for 13 years as a reporter and columnist, and I am familiar with the layout of the office. Notably, the business side of the paper and the editorial side were in different parts of the building.

In those years, Lacey was rarely in his office. He was not just an “editor,” he was the “executive editor” of all of VVM’s 17 papers. He regularly flew all over the country to meet with different editorial teams and attend copy meetings.

You never knew when Lacey would appear and start grilling you about what you were working on.

Each paper had its own editor. At PNT, it was my ex-boss, Rick Barrs. Each editor had his or her own newspaper fiefdom, but Lacey could get involved at any time he wanted to or was interested in a certain project. He enjoys writing and editing and has a distinct voice.

That does not mean he reviewed all the copy in all 17 papers. That would be nearly impossible. The editors were generally responsible for their respective papers, but even they couldn’t read everything.

In 2009/2010, everyone was blogging online as well as writing for the print publication. Reporters were cranking out scores of blogs a week, at least.

The papers had copy editors and managing editors who reviewed the paper’s content. And Lacey had immediate subordinates, like Christine Brennan, then executive managing editor, and Andy Van de Voorde, executive associate editor. VVM also had a listings editor and an editorial project editor.

I explain this because Rapp finally got around to his point, asking Ferrer about a blog item written by reporter Ray Stern in Feb. 2009, which concerned the founder of The Erotic Review (TER), David Elms, being arrested in Phoenix.

TER and Penthouse Forum

Rapp and Ferrer have presented the relationship between TER and Backpage as some kind of smoking gun. TER allowed its users to post anonymous reviews of escorts, which read like a 21st Century version of the Penthouse Forum letters. The descriptions of explicit sex acts on TER could be fantasy, reality, exaggeration, or some combination of all three. There’s no way to tell.

Ferrer testified that TER and Backpage had reciprocal links on their websites; that they exchanged banner ads; that TER drove a ton of traffic to Backpage; and, eventually, that Backpage was paying Elms as much as $4,000 per month to continue the relationship.

Penthouse Forum
Remember Penthouse Forum? It had steamy stories, just like TER (screenshot via Internet Archive)

When Elms was arrested on several charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, it was an easy catch for Stern, who had to write several blogs a day.  (Stern is no longer at New Times, and, full disclosure, I worked across the hall from him and consider him a friend.)

Stern’s old article was the subject of much discussion during a recent, pretrial hearing before federal Judge Diane Humetewa. Rapp said he wanted to use the piece to demonstrate that Lacey was aware of the nature of The Erotic Review’s content. Rapp claimed this put Lacey on “notice” that prostitution was occurring on

How, exactly?

Rapp said Lacey was the “editor” of Phoenix New Times, so he had to know what was in his own paper and would have seen Stern’s article.

Ultimately, Humetewa allowed Rapp to show the jury the New Times logo and Ray Stern’s byline, but not the entire article. She let Rapp briefly show the jury what looked like screenshots (though Rapp called it an “embed”) of a list of reviews that purportedly appeared on TER, as well as a profile of some unidentified woman.

Stern described how by clicking on the names of escorts, masseuses, or dominatrixes, you could get contact and profile information on the women. Stern offered two screenshots, one with a list of “providers” and one showing personal info.

In the second example, there’s a description of a woman’s appearance: long black hair, Italian ethnicity, a partially-shaved “pussy,” a breast cup of C, and a slim build. There’s also a list of potential “services,” like “two girl action” and “no rush session.” But to find out if this unnamed person will supposedly do X, Y, or Z , you have to upgrade to a VIP account on TER.

You can find this exact language, or even more graphic versions with photos to match, on many dating sites and apps.

Someone needs to explain to the prosecutors about “hook-up culture.” All the kids are doing it.

You’ll have to find the link for Stern’s piece yourself. Ferrer purports that just because you see a listing like this, you are a “John,” and that seems to be the ridiculous view of the prosecutors.

Lacey didn’t edit Stern’s article. I doubt the paper’s actual editor did so, because both Stern and I were seasoned employees and were trusted to publish articles on our own. The editor might look at it after the fact.

The prosecution’s line of questioning and its assumptions are deeply disingenuous. But it’s all part of a pattern.

Ferrer and the government would have jurors believe that titillating language is evidence of wrongdoing, that moderating content is nefarious, that banned terms and images are uncommon, that reciprocal links are the mark of the beast, that all female escorts are prostitutes, and that all ads for adult services are for illicit acts.

Ferrer would even have jurors believe that he didn’t own Backpage after it was sold to him in 2015.

Yet, he admitted on the stand that he was the only one running the site after 2015.

He claimed under oath that the sale was a “paper deal,” but I would remind him and readers, that “paper” can be currency, a contract, or an IOU, the last of which he essentially signed when he bought the Backpage farm.

How long will the prosecution’s prevarications persist? No doubt they will continue unabated.

Thankfully, the inane, repetitive direct questioning of Ferrer must eventually end. At that time,  get your popcorn ready for my play-by-play of his cross-examination, which I will Tweet/X during breaks in the courtroom proceedings, as I do every day during trial, @stephenlemons.

Please also see:
Ex-Backpage Owner Carl Ferrer Sings for Prosecution, Defense Undercuts His Testimony
Backpage Prosecutors Try (Again) to Ban First Amendment from First Amendment Case

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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,, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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