Backpage.com, the target of a federal human-trafficking investigation, is, ironically, a Delaware registered limited liability company in "good standing."
The U.S. web page of the classified ads website was seized Friday by federal law enforcement.
"I'm as curious as anyone to find out why the federal authorities seized them," said Nick Wasileski, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government.
Last summer, Wasileski's group filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the office of Delaware Gov. John Carney and Secretary of State Jeff Bullock's office seeking information about the state's communication with federal investigators over Backpage.
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At the time, Carney's office said it had no records and referred Wasileski to Bullock and to Delaware's Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Without acknowledging whether or not the Department of State had any records in its possession, FOIA Coordinator Tammy Stock ruled that such records were not public because they involved pending or potential litigation, according to correspondence obtained by The News Journal.
The classifieds website, which is involved in nearly three-quarters of the 10,000 child-trafficking reports received annually by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has been sued repeatedly by state prosecutors, sex trafficking survivors and victims' advocacy groups.
Yet as of February, it was meeting all requirements for a business entity outlined in Delaware law, according to Bullock and Attorney General Matt Denn.
"I think it's great news," Bullock said when reached Friday evening. He added that federal law enforcement had not given his office instructions on whether the Delaware Department of State could shut down Backpage's LLC. "But it sounds like this is just breaking right now."
Denn could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
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In an interview with The News Journal earlier this year, Bullock said his office did not have "legal authority" to dissolve the company. Denn's hands similarly were tied because Backpage doesn't have a physical presence in the state and courts have consistently ruled that federal law protects Backpage and other websites against civil or criminal sanctions stemming from the content of their users' posts.
In January, a multi-agency law enforcement operation in Delaware named Backpage as the primary mode of communication for initiating and arranging sexual encounters during a two-day crackdown on prostitution across New Castle County that produced more than 40 arrests. Eight of the 11 men charged with patronizing a prostitute were from Delaware.
On Friday, Michael Lacey, a founder of the New Times tabloid and a co-founder of Backpage, was charged in Phoenix in the apparent culmination of the human-trafficking investigation, according to his lawyer.
Authorities had spent months probing whether Backpage served as a willing participant in the online sale of sex, including with underage girls.
Attorney Larry Kazan, told The Arizona Republic at the federal courthouse in Phoenix on Friday afternoon that Lacey had been charged. Kazan said he did not know how many counts Lacey faced because the 93-count indictment was sealed.
On Friday evening, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said in an email that a judge had ruled the case was still under seal.
In 2016, a California judge rejected a state attempt to prosecute Backpage operators.
In that case, a judge found that free speech provisions of the Communications Decency Act protected the operators from such prosecution.
At that time, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris accused Backpage of “raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims.”
Harris, now a California senator, said the operators “designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.”