Policy

Senate Votes to Pursue Contempt in Sex Trafficking Probe

Resolution authorizes legal proceedings against Backpage.com

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, led the effort to hold the Backpage website in contempt. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For the first time since Whitewater, the full Senate voted to move forward with civil contempt proceedings.  

And unlike the circumstances of the 1995 investigation into then-President Bill Clinton, senators are speaking with one voice in support of an effort led by GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri to hold in contempt a classified website they say  trades in sex.  

The Senate voted 96-0 in favor of a resolution to authorize the legal action against Backpage.com, which has refused to honor a subpoena to appear before a Senate committee.  

"The aim of my and Senator McCaskill's investigation is straightforward: We want to understand how lawmakers, law enforcement, and even private businesses can more effectively combat this serious crime that thrives on an online black market," Portman said ahead of the vote. "Traffickers have found refuge and new customers through websites that specialize in advertising 'ordinary' prostitution and lawful escort services."  

Backpage's attorneys have said the company looked forward to pursuing the matter in court, saying it was the only way to resolve the disagreement with the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where Portman is chairman and McCaskill is ranking Democrat.  

"The contempt that Backpage has shown for our bipartisan investigation has now been met with the unanimous contempt of the full U.S. Senate," McCaskill said. "This historic vote makes a clear statement — we are fully committed to getting to the bottom of this company’s business practices and policies for preventing the trafficking of children, and we will get these answers."  

Portman and McCaskill are not alone in their effort.  

Other senators have worked to stop the use of BackPage for sexual exploitation in the past, including Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill. He authored legislation that has become law making it a federal crime to operate a website in which you knowingly allow ads for sex with children. But Kirk has not been pleased with the level of enforcement of that law.

"Backpage is the nation’s number one sex-trafficking website, so it’s no surprise they are hiding their role in selling children online for sex," Kirk said in a statement Thursday. "I have repeatedly called on the Justice Department to investigate Backpage and enforce my SAVE Act, and while the Justice Department has yet to act, today’s vote is one more step towards stopping Backpage from facilitating modern-day slavery across the U.S."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in backing the resolution Thursday, said enforcing the subpoena is crucial to preventing human trafficking and protecting the prerogative of the Senate.
"It's hard to think of a more worthy use of the Senate’s investigative authority than examining the methods used to facilitate the buying and selling of children for sexual exploitation," he said.
The last time a Senate resolution on civil contempt actually led to legal action was a couple of years before the Whitewater resolution, and it involved action against a senator.
The Senate Ethics Committee won approval of the full Senate, 94-6, to take legal action on a subpoena seeking access to the personal diaries of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., as part of the panel's inquiry into sexual misconduct by the former Finance chairman.
Contact Lesniewski at nielslesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski.
Topics: senate Backpage JUDI