After California’s then-Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced felony pimping charges last year against the two owners of Backpage.com — a classified-ad website that is a hub for sex trafficking and prostitution, one of the men cut a $10,000 check to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s super PAC. Mrs. Pelosi’s political action committee, House Majority PAC, has resisted giving the money back, and an aide to Mrs. Pelosi said the California Democrat knows nothing about the contribution. The uproar over sexual harassment that began with the Harvey Weinstein scandal has intensified the scrutiny of political contributions linked to Backpage, which law enforcement officials say is the chief platform for activities far worse than harassment, including sexual slavery and child prostitution. Mrs. Pelosi isn’t the only Democrat struggling to deal with the piles of cash that Backpage’s owners spread around to candidates and state Democratic parties over the years. Even Ms. Harris, a California Democrat who is now a U.S. senator, ducked the issue. Her office wouldn’t respond to repeated emails about Backpage money going to House Majority PAC and other Democratic organizations. Since 2010, the owners and their wives have shoveled about $99,000 to candidates and about $95,000 to Democratic parties in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, according to federal campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. Bowing to mounting pressure, including a bipartisan Senate investigation that found the owners knowingly sold ads to pimps who coerced minors into prostitution, Backpage in January closed down its adult services sections. The websites, however, continue to be marketplaces for the sex trade. Detroit police last week arrested two men who were using Backpage to run a sex trafficking ring after an underage girl told police she was brought to the city and put to work as a prostitute, with “dates” arranged on the website. In June, a Chicago man was arrested after using Backpage to sell a 16-year-old girl who was eventually killed by a client. Such stories of prostitution and sex trafficking linked to Backpage are relatively commonplace across the country. The founders and controlling shareholders of Backpage, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and Backpage executives and shareholders John Brunst and Scott Spear, have made fortunes from the websites. In California alone, Backpage rakes in about $2.5 million per month, according to charging documents in the Golden State. Mr. Larkin made the contribution to the House Majority PAC in October 2016, a week after he and Mr. Lacey were charged in California. A judge, citing federal law that shields internet sites from most liability, dropped the pimping charge in August. Related money laundering charges are proceeding against the men. Legislation spearheaded by Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, would tighten federal law to hold accountable websites such as Backpage that host thinly disguised ads for commercial sex and child prostitution. The bill is expected to easily pass the Senate early next year. There is still the question of what to do about the Backpage money.
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