The federal judge hearing criminal charges against former executives of Backpage.com is refusing to step aside from the case, saying her marriage to state Attorney General Mark Brnovich is irrelevant to the matter.
In a 14-page ruling late Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Brnovich did not dispute that her husband’s office had published a booklet about sex trafficking which specifically mentioned the now-defunct web site run by former Phoenix New Times executives Michael Lacey and James Larkin. There also have been partnerships between the attorney general’s office and organizations opposed to sex trafficking and other mentions of Backpage.com.
And Mark Brnovich — along with every other state attorney general — sent a letter to Congress in 2017 about Backpage.com and saying that it was complicit in soliciting sex traffickers’ ads for its web site. The aim was to seek expansion of the ability of state and local law enforcement to fight the practice.
But Susan Brnovich pointed out that the filing comes nearly a year and a half after she inherited the case from other federal judges, and after she already made some rulings against the defendants. And she sniffed at the claim that they just discovered the basis for trying to have her removed from the case.
“This bare assertion is unbelievable,” she wrote, saying there have been news articles going back to 2015 about her spouse. In fact, the judge wrote, the defense attorneys say they knew or were aware of the marriage when the case was assigned to her.
“Thus, knowing the Court was married to the attorney general of Arizona and knowing that state attorneys general have been scrutinizing Backpage for years, it is not credible to claim defendants knew nothing of AG Brnovich’s position on human trafficking,” she wrote.
The criminal charges are based on the government’s claim that the company knowingly took ads for prostitution services, including some involving children. And prosecutors say that company executives and staffers actually help advertisers craft classifieds in a way that would appear to make the services being offered legal.
For example, the government says internal emails said words like “afternoon delight” were considered acceptable, but “amber alert” and “cheerleader” were not allowed because they indicated minors were being offered for sale.
Those allegations were borne out when Carl Ferrer, a co-founder of the site, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. He admitted that advertisers were encouraged to craft the copy to hide that sex was being sold.
Ferrer has agreed to testify against Lacey and Larkin when their trial starts in January.
Prosecutors say the site had brought in $500 million in prostitution-related ad revenues since being founded in 2004.
In her new ruling, Judge Brnovich said there were other reasons to deny the attempt to remove her even if the request had not come too late.
She brushed aside one claim which said that judges are required to recuse themselves if they or family members have any interest in the outcome of the proceeding. The judge said that is generally considered a financial interest.
That, she said, is not the case here, with her husband having no financial interest in the matter. She also said he is not a member of any organization representing a party in the case.
Susan Brnovich also said there’s no basis for the charge that the outcome of the case will impact her husband’s ability to raise future campaign funds.
She also said Mark has made no derogatory or insulting comments about the defendants in this case. And that letter from all the attorneys general about Backpage, the judge noted, was sent before the indictments were issued in this case “and the letter made no mention of the defendants before the court.”
“In short, the court will remain impartial in this matter, and no reasonable person fully informed of the facts would question the court’s impartiality based on the court’s marriage to AG Brnovich,” she wrote.
There was no immediate response from the attorneys for Lacey or Larkin.