Senators weigh criminal contempt charge after CEO skips hearing

Senators weigh criminal contempt charge after CEO skips hearing
© Greg Nash

Senators investigating child sex trafficking lambasted the chief executive of a controversial classified ads website for failing to show up at a Thursday hearing, despite being subject to a subpoena.

The senators also opened the door to asking the Justice Department to examine the case for a possible charge of criminal contempt of Congress.

Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHouse passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump MORE (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world MORE (D-Mo.) are leading the investigation through the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

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Portman said that in early October, the committee called Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer to testify. Backpage is a classifieds site that many say acts as a platform for traffickers to advertise.

Ferrer’s lawyers told the committee the day before the hearing that the executive would be out of the country and that, were he to testify, he would likely demur from answering questions because of his fifth amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

“We had hoped Mr. Ferrer would be here, but he has refused to come,” Portman said at the beginning of the hearing.

Calling Ferrer’s decision not to testify “a clear act of contempt,” Portman said it “may justify a referral to the Department of Justice for criminal contempt.”

“We will be careful and cautious about using the procedures available to us but we will use them to insure that this effort is robust and informed and that ultimately the result is that more children and more families feel the comfort that their government is doing everything under the law to protect them,” McCaskill said.

The decision of whether to refer the issue to the Justice Department would be made in the coming days, Portman said. A contempt finding would require the approval of the full committee and the Senate, USA Today reported.

The lawmakers also took issue with Backpage’s apparent decision not to hand over subpoenaed documents. The senators said the documents had to do with the way the site moderates postings, which it says mitigates the risk that objectionable content will appear online.

“Backpage’s top lawyer has described its moderation process as the key tool for disrupting and eventually ending human trafficking via the worldwide web,” Portman said in an opening statement. “But Backpage has refused to turn over documents about this key moderation process that it touts as well as other relevant aspects of its business.”

“Defiance of a congressional subpoena is rare, and it’s serious,” he said.

Portman also said that the committee had found evidence to suggest the site's employees were editing some ads before they went online — a practice he said "likely served to concealed the illegality of the underlying transaction." He pointed to that finding as a reason why it was necessary to hear from the company directly.

Backpage has drawn the ire of human trafficking advocates who say it allows traffickers to advertise on the site. The company does not store the kind of data that could be used to track criminals using the platform, according to USA Today, and doesn’t have strict requirements for people posting ads for escort services on the site.

The website says it is committed to combating trafficking by regulating the ads that appear on the site. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the hearing on Thursday.