Judge Sets Date for Third Trial of Journalist Michael Lacey

Award-winning reporter, writer and editor Michael Lacey
Michael Lacey outside Phoenix's federal court in 2021: Why does the government want this man to die in prison?
Monday morning, Judge Humetewa set a tentative date for the retrial of veteran newspaperman Michael Lacey on 84 hung counts from the 2023 Backpage trial.

In a brief status conference on Monday morning in federal court in Phoenix, U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa scheduled August 6 as the start date for the retrial of journalist Michael Lacey on 84 hung counts from last year’s Backpage trial.

But the judge acknowledged during the hearing that the tentative trial date was likely to be pushed back by any number of factors.

Among the matters pending before the court are: a defense motion for acquittal, referred to as a Rule 29 motion, and a motion for a new trial on the guilty verdicts that Lacey and two others have received.

A retrial of Lacey would be a third bite at the apple for the government. Prosecutors’ first attempt in 2021 ended after just three days of testimony with a mistrial due to prosecutorial misconduct.

On Nov. 16, 2023, after an 11-week trial, a jury found Lacey guilty on one count of international concealment money laundering and not guilty on another money laundering count.

The jury was hung on 84 additional counts regarding conspiracy, money laundering and the “facilitation” of prostitution in violation of the U.S. Travel Act via adult advertising placed by third parties on the classified advertising site, Backpage.com.

Humetewa immediately declared a mistrial on those 84 counts. On Jan. 23, prompted by an order from Humetewa, the government announced its intention to retry Lacey.

Lacey was a co-owner of Backpage from 2004 till 2015 when it was sold to the government’s star witness, Carl Ferrer. Backpage was conceived as a way to compete with Craigslist.org and recoup advertising revenue that its parent company, Village Voice Media, a 17-newspaper chain founded by Lacey and Larkin, had lost to the internet.

Backpage’s other major co-owner, Jim Larkin, committed suicide shortly before the beginning of the second trial. Larkin also faced dozens of charges. The court dismissed those following his death.

Four others endured the second trial beside Lacey, with mixed results. The jury found Andrew Padilla and Joye Vaught, both of whom worked for Backpage at one time, not guilty of all the 51 counts they faced.

The jury was not kind to co-defendants Scott Spear and Jed Brunst, both one-time executives of Backpage’s holding company. Jurors found Brunst guilty of one conspiracy count and more than 30 money laundering counts. Spear was found guilty on 39 counts, including allegations of money laundering, conspiracy and Travel Act violations.

Humetewa has not set sentencing dates for the three men. Each is expected to appeal their convictions to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

During the hearing, prosecutor Andrew Stone and Lacey’s attorney Paul Cambria agreed that it would be better to wait for the appeals court to rule before commencing with Lacey’s new trial.

Cambria noted that there are “significant issues” to be decided by a Ninth Circuit panel and that the First Amendment “intertwines” with the case. He suggested the court delay sentencing Lacey on the one guilty verdict until after the third trial.

Stone objected to a delay, saying, “Lacey needs to be sentenced, then appeal,” so the Ninth could rule on Lacey’s conviction.

Humetewa agreed that what the Ninth does on appeal could change “whether the government can pursue” Lacey. She seemed to side with Stone on Lacey’s sentencing, stating that delaying his sentencing “would not be useful,” as Lacey can only appeal after being sentenced according to the rules of the court.

As Reason magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown recently observed, the government likely wants to retry Lacey because his conviction for international concealment money laundering does not comport with the facts.

She wrote:

“It was a weird verdict, considering that the conduct in question was very much not concealed. Lacey moved some money to a foreign bank after U.S. banks were pressured into dropping him. Lacey’s lawyers informed the IRS of this action and made all required declarations and disclosures.”

As a result, the odds favor a reversal. But the government seems determined to have Lacey die in prison. The maximum sentence for Lacey’s one guilty count is 20 years, and Lacey is 75 years old.

As Nolan Brown wrote,

“[The] aggression with which this case has been pursued also lends itself to a darker interpretation: Lacey is being punished for failing to respect authority, failing to cave and give the government what it thought would be easy to get.”

Indeed, Lacey may not be able to fund his future defense, as the government seized nearly all of Lacey and Larkin’s assets shortly before their arrests in 2018.

And after nearly six years of fighting, Lacey’s defense is driving on fumes.

Cambria told the court that he has not yet been retained for a third trial, but he would soon be filing a request for a “Monsanto hearing,” which, if granted, would determine if any of Lacey’s seized assets could be released to help fund his defense. The issue last came up in Dec. 2021.

Despite the seriousness of Monday’s status conference, there was a lighthearted moment as Cambria, in discussing a new trial date, ran down a timeline of his upcoming cases.

Humetewa joked that she thought Cambria, a partner at the firm Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria in Buffalo, NY, was winding down his law career.

Cambria told the judge that he’s as busy as he’s ever been.

“My hope is I’m found with my head on my desk on a winning decision and I pass away,” he said.

Please also see:
Feds Will Retry Lacey, Humetewa Seals Trial Exhibits
and
What’s Next for the Backpage Defendants?

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

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