PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — A Pierce County judge has sanctioned Backpage.com as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by two teenagers who allege they were sold for sex on the website.
The girls contended that a plea agreement former Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer entered into in April — in a separate criminal case — contradicted what the defendants in the lawsuit had been saying.
Ferrer admitted he and other executives and owners of Backpage.com knew most of the website's escort ads were for prostitution. And they edited out overt references to prostitution to make the ads less obvious and give the company deniability, he said.
The attorneys for the girls said the group was dishonest about that in the lawsuit.
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"Ferrer’s admissions show the Backpage defendants have intentionally and repeatedly made misrepresentations in discovery, depositions, and pleadings to the Court in an attempt to obstruct the civil justice system and unnecessarily increase the costs of litigation to minor trafficking victims," states the motion for sanctions filed by girls' attorneys, Michael Pfau, Jason Amala and Vincent Nappo.
Superior Court Judge G. Helen Whitener agreed, and Thursday ordered Backpage.com, its owners and Ferrer to pay the girls $200,000, according to the girls' attorneys.
Whitener also told the defendants they had failed to come forward with 1.2 million documents the girls sought as part of the lawsuit, that the failure was willful and unjustified and that they must pay up to $1.2 million if they don't produce the records in 60 days.
The teens, identified in the lawsuit as R.O. and K.M., said they were the victims of sex trafficking in 2014 and 2015 when they were about 14 and 16.
Backpage.com helped facilitate the abuse by moderating online ads to make it less obvious the posts were for sex, the teens allege in their lawsuit, which they filed last year.
Now they argue Ferrer's plea shows their allegations are true.
He pleaded guilty in California, Arizona and Texas to federal and state crimes, including conspiracy to facilitate prostitution, and money laundering.
The website was seized and shut down by the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies in April.