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Backpage founders lose bid for new judge at upcoming trial

April 7, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this April 30, 2018, file photo, are Backpage.com founders James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey, right, as they leave federal court in Phoenix in a case in which they are charged with facilitating prostitution. A federal appeals court on April 5, 2021, rejected a request by the former operators of Backpage.com to prevent a judge from presiding over their trial because of statements made by the judge's husband, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, about the now-shuttered classified ad site. Lacey, Larkin and four other former site employees have pleaded not guilty to charges. (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud, File)
FILE - In this April 30, 2018, file photo, are Backpage.com founders James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey, right, as they leave federal court in Phoenix in a case in which they are charged with facilitating prostitution. A federal appeals court on April 5, 2021, rejected a request by the former operators of Backpage.com to prevent a judge from presiding over their trial because of statements made by the judge's husband, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, about the now-shuttered classified ad site. Lacey, Larkin and four other former site employees have pleaded not guilty to charges. (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — An appeals court has rejected a bid by the former operators of Backpage.com to recuse a judge in Arizona from presiding over their upcoming trial on prostitution facilitation charges because of statements made by the judge’s husband about human trafficking and the now-shuttered classified ad site.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded on Monday that Judge Susan Brnovich made no clear error in rejecting the recusal request made by Backpage founders Michael Lacey, James Larkin and other former site managers, who argued that letting her remain on the case, scheduled to go to trial Aug. 23, could lead people to question the court’s impartiality.

The site’s former operators had criticized statements made in a human trafficking booklet published by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office, which describes the ad site as a place where sex is frequently purchased. Their lawyers said the attorney general has invited members of the public to visit websites that contain inflammatory information about Backpage and its operators and that the attorney general has publicly claimed that the site facilitated sex trafficking.

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The case against the former Backpage operators is being prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, not the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

Paul Cambria, an attorney for Lacey, and Thomas Bienert, a lawyer representing Larkin, didn’t return a call seeking comment on behalf of their clients.

Brnovich spokeswoman Katie Conner said the attorney general wasn’t going to comment on the ruling, but said she believes “it’s abhorrent that the defendants in this case insinuate a woman can’t speak and think for herself.”

In rejecting the recusal request five months ago, Judge Brnovich wrote she will remain impartial and said no informed, reasonable person would question her ability to be just and fair based on her marriage. She wrote the attorney general didn’t make any derogatory comments about those who are charged in the case. Judge Brnovich pointed out that defense lawyers waited more than 17 months to try to take her off the case even though the attorneys knew the judge was married to the attorney general when she was assigned it.

Prosecutors said it was anachronistic to suggest an experienced judge is unable to impartially preside over a case because of her husband’s views. They also said the bid to recuse the judge came after she made adverse rulings against them, including decisions in which she refused to dismiss charges.

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Authorities said the former website’s operators are accused of ignoring warnings to stop running prostitution ads and that the site brought in $500 million in prostitution-related revenue.

Prosecutors alleged the site gave free ads to prostitutes and cultivated arrangements with others who worked in the sex trade to get them to post ads with the company. Some of the site’s operators also are accused of laundering money earned from ad sales after banks raised concerns that they were being used for illegal purposes.

The former Backpage operators said the site never allowed ads for sex and used people and automated tools to try to delete such ads.

While prosecutors say the site published many ads that depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking, no one in the federal case in Arizona is charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking.

In all, six former Backpage operators have pleaded not guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution. Of the six, Lacey, Larkin and two others have pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges.

The site’s marketing director has already pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate prostitution and acknowledged he participated in a scheme to give free ads to prostitutes to win over their business.

Additionally, the company’s chief executive, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to a separate federal conspiracy case in Arizona and to state money laundering charges in California.

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This story was first published on April 6, 2021. It was updated on April 7, 2021 to correct the pleas entered by the site’s founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and two other former employees. Lacey, Larkin and the two other former site managers have pleaded not guilty to all charges against them.