The government's star witness in the Backpage trial, site founder Carl Ferrer, took it on the chin in federal court on Wed., pummeled on cross by defense attorneys Paul Cambria and Gary Lincenberg.
All that was missing was the apple in his mouth.
Defense attorneys Gary Lincenberg and Paul Cambria took turns roasting prosecution witness Carl Ferrer on a legal spit during cross-examination at the Backpage trial on Wednesday in downtown Phoenix’s Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse.
Both lawyers carved away at Ferrer’s credibility, confronting him with the inconsistencies in his testimony on direct examination, where nearly every action and policy of the erstwhile classified listings site, Backpage.com, was spun by Ferrer into something unsavory and criminal.
Ferrer, who co-founded Backpage in 2004 to compete with Craigslist.org and ran it until 2018, when the feds seized and destroyed it, has copped the government line that common practices by Backpage such as moderation, content aggregation, and even cooperation with law enforcement were all somehow intended to facilitate misdemeanor state prostitution offenses in violation of the U.S. Travel Act.
Veteran newspaperman Michael Lacey co-owned Backpage till 2015, when he and his longtime business partner, Jim Larkin, sold it to Ferrer.
Lacey and four execs and employees of the site stand accused of 50 Travel Act violations and one related conspiracy charge. Lacey and the two execs, Scott Spear and Jed Brunst, face additional money laundering and conspiracy allegations.
Larkin was similarly charged, but shortly before the trial was to begin, he died in tragic circumstances, tortured by the government’s false allegations, the seizure of nearly all of his assets, and a seemingly never-ending prosecution that’s now in its sixth year.
During his interrogation of Ferrer, Cambria homed in on Ferrer’s contention that Backpage’s substantial assistance to law enforcement was a “PR stunt.”
Cambria asked about a 2011 email chain with Lacey and Larkin. Ferrer described a meeting with Dallas Police Department investigator Byron Fassett. Fassett told Ferrer that the Dallas PD used about one percent of reports of suspicious ads sent to them by Backpage via the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) because Backpage was reporting ads where the user was not underage.
Ferrer told Cambria that Backpage would, if in doubt, send a report on an ad to NCMEC.
That way, Ferrer explained, NCMEC could refer the ad to law enforcement (LE), and LE could investigate it to determine if the person in the ad was a minor.
Ferrer said he promised Dallas PD that he would remove any ads LE wanted taken down, if LE said the ad was for an illegal act.
Ferrer denied that Backpage was “working with LE,” but he admitted that he would let LE repost “sting ads” after they were taken down by moderators for a violation.
Cambria had Ferrer read a 2011 email from Ferrer to Lacey and Larkin, wherein Ferrer wrote: “I have been told we respond [to LE subpoenas] significantly faster than the cell phone carriers, internet service providers and email services, which can take a week or longer.”
Cambria asked Ferrer about a manual he created for LE to help them in their requests for info from Backpage. Ferrer said he would send it to LE every time Backpage answered a subpoena. He also gave presentations about it to LE.
Ferrer testified that Backpage responded to 20,000 LE subpoenas from 2004 to 2018. He finally admitted Backpage was trying to “assist” LE, not the people LE was after.
Ferrer said Backpage helped “over 100” LE agencies, both state and federal.
Ferrer admitted Backpage ran public service announcements from Children of the Night, which provides services to endangered children. And Backpage’s staff testified at trials across the country to put traffickers away.
But Ferrer said this was all “public relations.”
Likely, it wasn’t a “public relations” stunt to the minors saved from harm as a result of Backpage’s cooperation with LE.
In one communication discussed with Cambria, Ferrer actually said that “cooperation with law enforcement” was his “favorite part” of his employment with Backpage.
And yet, Ferrer now says it was all a sham.
Also noteworthy: Ferrer agreed that Lacey was a “journalist” who wrote “articles & editorials” and once stated that Lacey was “a layer away from Backpage.”
Lincenberg Takes Aim
After Cambria, Gary Lincenberg, attorney for former Backpage exec, Jed Brunst, was next up at bat.
Lincenberg spent time pointing out that his client, Jed Brunst, had no responsibility for content on Backpage, as he was Chief Financial Officer of Village Voice Media, of which Backpage was a part until 2012, when the companies split. Brunst dealt with financial matters.
Brunst owned a small percentage of the corporate parent of Backpage. Most of that corporate parent was owned by Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin before Backpage was sold to Carl Ferrer in 2015.
At one point, Ferrer told Lincenberg that he “became the nominal owner” of Backpage after 2015 and that he had to get approval for everything from “the owners.“
But when it came to the decision to turn the site over to the federal government in 2018, suddenly Ferrer was in total control.
Ferrer told Lincenberg that he didn’t ask anyone about shutting down a site that he supposedly didn’t own.
“I made the decision on my own,” Ferrer said.
Regardless, after 2015, Ferrer owned Backpage, and he had an IOU of $600M that he had to pay principal and interest on.
Also in 2015, not long after the sale of Backpage to Ferrer, Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois, sent a letter to Visa and MasterCard, telling them that they might be in violation of the law by doing business with Backpage.
Ferrer referred to this on direct examination as the “credit card apocalypse,” and portrayed it as something the credit card companies did because of “reputational risk. But Dart was the reason for it, as Ferrer’s been forced to admit on cross-examination.
Ferrer confirmed on the stand that in a sworn statement made later in 2015, he avowed that Dart’s “actions and the termination of credit card services have harmed Backpage’s efforts to police and preclude improper ads.”
Ferrer’s testimony about Sheriff Dart was interesting because Judge Humetewa has ruled that the 7th Circuit’s influential Posner decision, which found Dart violated the First Amendment by threatening the credit card companies, cannot be discussed during the Backpage trial.
So Lincenberg had to dance around the 7th Circuit ruling, while the prosecutors objected to him “ implicating the court,” meaning the decision of the 7th Circuit, which was a stunning victory for Backpage at the time.
Likewise, Backpage’s numerous wins in federal and state courts cannot be mentioned as Judge Humetewa has ruled that they are irrelevant to this trial.
Notwithstanding that ruling, Lincenberg’s examination of Ferrer was as impressive as Cambria’s, though their styles are widely divergent.
Lincenberg is meticulous and works with a scalpel, whereas Cambria carves up his prey with a chainsaw.
Needless to say, both attorneys’ efforts made for a satisfying day in court for the defense.
Ferrer’s cross-examination will resume Thursday morning.
For regular updates during breaks in the trial, follow @stephenlemons on Twitter/X.