After what appeared to be months of plea negotiations, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York has indicted the owner of rentboy.com for promoting prostitution, facilitating a crime by a person under 16, and on two counts of violating a federal money laundering statute.
“It’s a crazy and out of control prosecution,” said William Dobbs, an attorney and gay civil libertarian. “It caused not only a lot of community outrage, but had the New York Times slamming it in an editorial. Let’s hope the other defendants get fairer treatment.”
Jeffrey Hurant, who founded the gay escort website in 1997, was arrested last August along with six employees of the website, which was seized and shut down by the US Department of Homeland Security. The prosecution, which is being handled by the US attorney in Brooklyn and not Manhattan, where rentboy.com was headquartered, sparked protests in four cities and angry denunciations by a host of LGBT and civil liberties groups.
Hurant faces one count of violating the federal Travel Act, which makes certain state crimes a violation of federal law when they are committed across state lines or by using a phone, email, snail mail, or other forms interstate commerce. The January 27 indictment alleges that Hurant violated New York’s statute on criminal facilitation in the fourth degree and promoting prostitution in the fourth degree, which are misdemeanors, and promoting prostitution in the third degree, which is a class D felony. Violations of the Travel Act carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.
The indictment also charges Hurant with two counts of violating a federal money laundering statute that make it illegal to use the proceeds from illegal activity. The indictment says that the government wants to seize roughly $1.6 million in cash and from rentboy.com bank accounts. About $1.2 million of that amount is held in bank accounts owned by Hurant. The text of the indictment suggests that Hurant made no effort to conceal the proceeds. The money laundering charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
In an email, Michael Tremonte, Hurant’s attorney and a partner at Sher Tremonte LLP, wrote, “The government’s charges against Mr. Hurant are unwarranted. He ran his business openly for nearly 20 years, and it makes no sense to single him out for criminal prosecution. Mr. Hurant plans to contest the charges and looks forward to full vindication at trial.”
Beginning in September, the defendants and the US attorney’s office filed repeated orders for continuances that effectively stop the clock on the statutory time the prosecutor has to file an indictment. The most recent order was set to expire on January 29. The repeated continuances suggested that the parties were negotiating a plea deal.
The indictment quotes from emails that were likely seized when rentboy.com was shut down last August but also quotes conversations that employees had with advertisers on the site, managers at rentboy.com, or with friends about content on the site. This may mean that one or more of the six employees arrested in August are cooperating with federal prosecutors, a practice that is routine in criminal cases, or that the government used wiretaps in this case.
“On another occasion, the same employee rejected an advertisement’s content and told the escort that it was ‘way over the line in terms of making the sale of sex explicit,’” the indictment says. “The employee went on to say that ‘We have to be careful not to attract the wrong attention from the law.’”
Escorts and escort agencies were warned by rentboy.com employees to not say that they were offering sex for money, the indictment alleges. Advertisers were told that they should say they are selling their time. In another conversation, one employee was offered free sex with an escort by an agency, the indictment charges.
“In one case, the manager of an escort agency offered the sexual services of his escorts to a rentboy.com employee for free at any time,” the indictment says. “The employee told friends that he was not going to accept the offer because ‘the pimp is taking advantage of the escort.’”
The allegations in the indictment that concern facilitating a crime –– prostitution in this case –– by a person under 16 appear flimsy at first glance, with employees merely commenting that an escort looks underage, but then the indictment does not contain all of the information that the government has.
“In one case, a rentboy.com employee told a manager that an account was held by a ‘guy who brings in 10-12 boys/ year to pimp out here,’” the indictment says.
Some of the anger at the original arrests was fueled by the criminal complaint and anonymous leaks to the mainstream press that alleged crimes that Hurant and the six employees were not charged with. That practice continued in the indictment, which noted that three men in Florida who are facing sex trafficking charges there advertised on rentboy.com. Hurant is not charged with trafficking.
“After reading the complaint, which was nothing more than a lengthy diatribe against homosexuality and the gay community, it brings disgrace upon their office that they would indict somebody for doing nothing more than providing a service to the gay community,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBT political group. “These trumped up charges are a disgrace… The complaint demonstrates that bigotry is behind this exercise.”