Did John and Cindy McCain have a score to settle with the two co-founders of a scrappy Phoenix weekly who got under their skin for decades?
Introduction: April 2018 — The FBI Seizes Backpage.com, and the McCains Rejoice
Hours after news broke on April 6, 2018, that the FBI had seized the online listings giant Backpage.com and arrested seven current and former executives of the company, Cindy McCain, the wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain, was on the air, reveling in the website’s demise.
“I’m sorry that it came to this,” Cindy McCain told the Arizona Republic in a video interview from the McCains’ ranch outside Sedona. “We had tried to work with Backpage for many years…. And we could never get through to them.”
At the time, John McCain had been at the ranch since leaving Washington, D.C., in late December 2017 to fight a deadly form of brain cancer. (McCain would ultimately succumb to the disease in August 2018.) The 81-year-old, six-term U.S. senator had made no public appearances, but his Twitter account marked Backpage’s demise with a statement that praised the shutdown.
“The seizure of the malicious sex marketplace Backpage.com marks an important step forward in the fight against human trafficking,” John McCain tweeted.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 6, 2018
Contrary to the senator’s gloating tweet, Lacey, Larkin, and their co-defendants were not charged with human trafficking. Instead, they face charges of “facilitating” prostitution in violation of the federal Travel Act, along with related counts of conspiracy and money laundering. Carl Ferrer, Backpage’s CEO, entered into a plea agreement with the government, as did one of Ferrer’s employees. Lacey, Larkin, and four others who worked for Backpage have pleaded not-guilty. A trial date has been set for early 2020.
Though nearly a decade’s worth of court decisions backed Backpage’s assertion that the site could not be held liable for advertisements placed by users, the McCains and their allies persistently painted the classified portal as a hub of the illicit sex trade, seizing seemingly every opportunity to conflate commercial sex between consenting adults with the nefarious crime of human trafficking.
(Anti-prostitution groups often conflate prostitution with human trafficking and sex trafficking, but there are significant differences. Prostitution involves commercial sex that takes place between or among consenting adults, and it is prosecuted on a local level. Sex trafficking, a subcategory of human trafficking is a federal crime, defined by statute as causing a person under age eighteen to engage in commercial sex, or using force, fraud, or coercion to cause an adult to do the same.)
The feds’ takedown of Backpage followed a years-long campaign against the site by the McCains, who seized seemingly every opportunity to issue public statements that painted the website as a hub of illicit commercial sex.
But John and Cindy McCain’s animus against Backpage goes much farther back than that.
Two of those indicted — Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin — are not only former co-owners of Backpage, having sold their interest in the company in 2015. Lacey and Larkin are also co-founders of Phoenix New Times, which they built into a national chain of alt-weeklies, Village Voice Media. In 2012, they sold to company insiders, and the chain has since been renamed Voice Media Group. (Editor’s note: In 2017, Lacey and Larkin founded Front Page Confidential to cover issues related to the First Amendment and freedom of speech.)
Before the sale, Lacey served as executive editor of the chain. Larkin was CEO. The flagship Phoenix New Times, which came into being in 1970 in response to the Vietnam War, was skeptical of John McCain from the moment he set foot in the desert in 1981. Having left his first wife, McCain was newly wed to Arizona beer heiress Cindy Hensley and in search of an opportunity to run for Congress.
Unlike the many news outlets that McCain had successfully schmoozed over the years, New Times stayed on the politician’s case, exposing his numerous misdeeds and missteps, along with those of his privileged second family.
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) April 15, 2017
The veteran newsmen have vowed to fight the charges on First Amendment grounds. If the case goes to trial, it’s a fair bet Cindy McCain will be in attendance to view the proceedings.
1989 — : Both John and Cindy McCain Have Been Subjects of Phoenix New Times Investigations
At various times over the years, Phoenix New Times reporters and columnists zeroed in on both John and Cindy McCain.
When John McCain became the focus of an ethics inquiry in 1989 over his relationship to real estate tycoon and savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating, Phoenix New Times political columnist Tom Fitzpatrick skewered the Republican senator from Arizona as “the most reprehensible of the Keating Five” — a reference to the quintet of senators accused of trading favors and fat contributions for political pressure on regulators bent on curtailing Keating’s fraudulent activities.
New Times would go on to expose the media’s blind spot when it came to Senator McCain. The paper’s reporters delved into the question of whether McCain’s half-decade as a POW in North Vietnam entitled him to “war hero” status. They dug into McCain’s campaign contributions and found that the Keating Five was by no means a one-off when it came to the senator taking questionable actions on behalf of donors.
My Turn: Why is it OK to sell kids on websites like Backpage? https://t.co/Niet1ijvKu
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) August 12, 2017
When the veteran lawmaker portrayed himself as a profile in political courage, New Times reminded readers of McCain’s hypocrisy on issues like illegal immigration. And when an old political foe emerged with a memoir blasting McCain as an inveterate backstabber, New Times voiced its approval.
Both of those New Times investigations did lasting damage to the McCains’ public image.
The earlier article detailed Cindy McCain’s addiction to opiates, which led her to steal prescription narcotics from a nonprofit she ran. That story also recounted both McCain’s disingenuous attempts to spin the tale as one of a former addict bravely sharing her story with the media.
The latter piece explored the unsavory origins of Cindy McCain’s wealth. Her father, Jim Hensley, was a convicted bootlegger with mob connections. Hensley went legit in 1955 with Hensley & Co., which he built into one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributorships in the nation. When Jim Hensley died in 2000, Cindy McCain inherited the family business.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) September 27, 2017
“Haunted by Spirits” was published in the midst of John McCain’s first unsuccessful run for president.
New Times again pulled back the curtain during McCain’s presidential run in 2008. Amy Silverman, the paper’s longtime political reporter, had followed McCain’s duplicitous career for more than a decade. In “Postmodern John McCain,” Silverman examined McCain’s penchant for exacting revenge on his opponents. (Silverman herself was treated to the famed McCain invective. In a 2000 article for Salon.com, she recounted how McCain blew up at her father, an executive for an Arizona utility, screaming at him in the U.S. Senate dining room: “Why can’t you control your daughter?”
2013: Cindy McCain Embraces the Anti-Sex Work Cause
Cindy McCain’s embrace of the issue of “human trafficking” dates back at least to April 2013, when then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer appointed the senator’s wife co-chair of the state’s newly created Human Trafficking Council. Her work there was mirrored in her tireless promotion of the anti-trafficking cause through John McCain’s namesake nonprofit, the McCain Institute for International Leadership, on whose Human Trafficking Advisory Council she sits.
From the outset, Cindy McCain promoted the much-debunked myth that the Super Bowl constitutes a sex trafficker’s dream come true In November 2013, during a women’s forum sponsored by Politico, she called the National Football League’s signature event as the “largest human-trafficking venue on the planet” and claimed that the league was “not willing to deal with this issue.”
McCain also made clear early on that Backpage was squarely in her sights. Conceding that she didn’t know “how we stop an organization like Backpage,” she predicted that it would “take a big movement to get rid of those guys.”
Today, @POTUS signed into law our bipartisan #SESTA. This bill will enable Backpage and other websites to be held accountable for knowingly facilitating human trafficking, and allow victims of these horrific crimes to seek the justice they deserve. https://t.co/l3Lidlc7vg pic.twitter.com/t82QDrI4aw
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 11, 2018
In September of that year, Cindy McCain met with the former First Lady of Mexico to discuss human trafficking. As often would be the case, her comments turned to Backpage. She claimed the site, established in 2004 as a competitor to Craigslist, took in millions of dollars from human trafficking. In reality, Backpage functioned as the online version of the classified advertising section that had appeared alternative weekly newspapers for decades: It served as a marketplace where individuals offered to sell everything from used garden implements to antique furniture. There was also a prominent adult section, where people advertised erotic services, from stripteases and escorts to erotic massage.
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) April 14, 2017
During her testimony at a U.S. House subcommittee in early 2014, Cindy McCain referred to human trafficking as “modern-day slavery,” while casually conflating sex trafficking with prostitution. She cited statistics paid for by the McCain Institute, which claimed that 84 percent of all ads for prostitution in the New Jersey/New York area during the 2014 Super Bowl involved women who were being trafficked.
The statistics were based on flawed methodology and assumptions about the language that was used on the site. In the absence of concomitant arrests, there was no way to know whether any ads involved trafficking or prostitution. And as Reason.com and other outlets have noted, statistics on sex trafficking are elusive; the FBI’s national figures indicate that arrests and convictions are rare.
Lack of evidence did not stop Cindy McCain.
Through the McCain Institute, she partnered with the Phoenix Police Department and Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work. (Roe-Sepowitz would later become a member of the Human Trafficking Council, alongside Cindy McCain.)
To all of our friends in the United States Senate thank you for the overwhelming passage of #SESTA today. By doing so you are protecting our precious children!
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) March 21, 2018
In 2014, Roe-Sepowitz and the Phoenix PD collaborated on a pretrial diversion program they dubbed Project ROSE: Women who were arrested on prostitution charges could choose to enter counseling programs that were overseen by local churches. The police department ultimately abandoned the project after it came under criticism from the ACLU and received negative press, including stories in Phoenix New Times.
The McCain Institute, which affiliated with ASU, has funded much of Roe-Sepowitz’s research, which Cindy McCain has used to bolster her sex-trafficking claims regarding Backpage.
But the arrangement did not always work as expected. In 2015, when Roe-Sepowitz released a survey of Backpage ads culled from the 2014 and 2015 Super Bowls, she was unable to find any direct link between the event and a change in the number of ads posted in Backpage’s adult section.
In a 2015 interview with the Arizona Republic, Roe-Sepowitz expressed the belief that every adult sex worker is trafficked and thus should be considered a trafficking victim, even if no individual has forced her to engage in prostitution. She called it “trafficked by circumstances.” As for the Super Bowl myth, she waved away the lack of actual correlation, opining, “Most of us say, any attention is good attention.”
2017: Cindy McCain Takes Direct Aim at Michael Lacey, Jim Larkin, and Backpage
In January of 2017, she attended a hearing of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which had subpoenaed current and former Backpage execs, including Lacey and Larkin, to interrogate them on Backpage’s business practices. Lacey, Larkin, and the rest invoked their Fifth and First Amendment rights and refused to answer any questions. The subcommittee had compiled a massive report largely based on documents subpoenaed by Backpage, which it claimed showed that Backpage had “knowingly facilitated” online sex trafficking. A closer inspection revealed that Backpage’s practices were in keeping with industry standards and within the guidelines of U.S. law.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, noted in a press release that Cindy McCain would join him and other senators immediately following the hearing for press availability. Senator McCain is a member of the committee and joined his fellow lawmakers that day to read a prepared statement praising his wife’s work in combating human trafficking. Cindy McCain tweeted that she had “watched all of the Backpage owners take the 5th today at the Senate hearing.”
Later that year, she would take to Twitter again to criticize a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate who’d accepted campaign donations from Lacey and Larkin, and she penned an op-ed for the Arizona Republic with the misleading title, “Why is it OK to sell kids on websites like Backpage?”
In the op-ed, Cindy McCain accused Backpage of hiding behind the First Amendment, and she encouraged people to support a proposed legislative solution: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which was crafted to hold interactive websites such as Backpage culpable for content posted by others — when that content was found to be connected to sex trafficking.
In March, the Senate approved the bill, which by then had taken on the name of the House version, FOSTA, by a margin of 97-2. (This, despite a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice pointing out that the measure is almost certainly unconstitutional. President Trump signed FOSTA into law on April 11.
By that time, of course, Backpage had been seized, its former and current execs arrested. Despite what Cindy McCain and others had said while drumming up support for the legislation, the Backpage indictment cast an odd light on the assertion that the new law was what was needed to shut down the website.
Both McCains celebrated the news of Backpage on Twitter.
“JUST IN: The FBI raided the Sedona home of backpage.com founder Michael Lacey today. Website shut down.”
JUST IN: The FBI raided the Sedona home of https://t.co/8NWZQ1hWMI founder Michael Lacey today. Website shut down. Story in app.
(Via azfamily 3TV CBS 5) https://t.co/maMSdifQeH
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) April 6, 2018