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Contempt Action in Sex Trafficking Probe Heads to Senate Floor

Portman and McCaskill are leading the effort to hold Backpage.com in contempt. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

   

In what could be the Senate's first civil contempt enforcement action in two decades, a resolution cleared committee Wednesday condemning the chief of a classified ad website that's become infamous as a marketplace for human trafficking.  

Carl Ferrer, CEO of the Backpage.com site, failed to appear at a Senate subcommittee hearing in November, and company lawyers informed the committee staff that they would not even go through the process of tracking down documentation request pursuant to a subpoena, committee leaders said.  

"Congress of course is very interested in learning about effective strategies to prevent women and children from being sold for sexual abuse, but Backpage refuses to give us answers to legitimate questions, and these are questions about their internal practices," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  

He noted that the site has claimed to have internal controls in place designed to thwart exploitation. A representative for Backpage said Wednesday that he welcomes the panel's decision.  

"The Subcommittee and Backpage.com have been in disagreement regarding both the applicability of the First Amendment to the Subcommittee’s efforts to require production of documents from an online publisher of third party advertisements and the relevance of such records to the work of the Subcommittee," according to a statement from Steven Ross, a partner at Akin Gump and counsel to Backpage. "In letters and in discussions that go back to last summer, we have repeatedly urged the Subcommittee to follow this path, the only procedural course of action that allows for judicial review of a Senate subpoena.”  

Sen. Claire McCaskill, the subcommittee's top Democrat praised Portman for his calm demeanor as the full panel approved a resolution to authorize Senate lawyers to pursue civil contempt against Ferrer.  

"Every once in a while I am ready to do a McCain on these guys,"  McCaskill said Wednesday,  summing up her level of frustration with the operators of Backpage.com.  

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican known at times for his temper, said after the Missouri senator's quip that "someone is calling the kettle black."  

McCain, who has led no shortage of investigations during his own Senate career, said the issue of Ferrer not complying with the requests of Portman and McCaskill went well beyond even the trafficking issue itself.  

"If allowed to go unresponded to, then why shouldn't anybody just refuse to testify?" McCain asked, rhetorically.  

Portman met with human trafficking survivors in Columbus, Ohio, Monday, including some who had been sold through Backpage.com advertisements.  

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson said he planned to move expeditiously to get the resolution up for a vote on the Senate floor.  

"I want to make sure the Senate speaks on this issue quickly," the Wisconsin Republican said.  

The resolution will be privileged on the Senate floor, meaning it can be called up faster than most resolutions with limitations on debate.  

Contact Lesniewski at nielslesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski.

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