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February 12, 2016

Widespread Protests Accompany Rentboy Head's Court Date

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—It's not as if there were far more important issues to worry about, and it's not as if the well-respected international rights group Amnesty International didn't call for the legalization of prostitution worldwide, but roughly six months after federal marshals, in the company of agents from the Department of Homeland Security (!), Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers managed to get a three-count indictment against Jeffrey Hurant, the head of escort site Rentboy.com. The indictment, handed down on January 27, charges Hurant with promotion of prostitution, "money laundering conspiracy" and plain ol' money laundering for allowing men to post ads on Rentboy.com offering various sexual services, though it was official company policy not to allow such explicit solicitations, and for not checking the ages of such escorts, though it was official company policy to do so. The indictment also contains a series of "criminal forfeiture allegations" connected with each count, and taken together, they add up to a pretty penny: roughly $1.5 million in cash, almost all of which was seized when the feds raided Rentboy's offices in mid-August. That raid was so controversial that even The New York Times editorialized against it. "It’s somewhat baffling, though, that taking down a website that operated in plain sight for nearly two decades suddenly became an investigative priority for the Department of Homeland Security and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn," The Times wrote. "The criminal complaint is so saturated with sexually explicit details, it’s hard not to interpret it as an indictment of gay men as being sexually promiscuous. ... Prosecutors can credibly argue that the site’s operators were breaking the law. But they have provided no reasonable justification for devoting significant resources, particularly from an agency charged with protecting America from terrorists, to shut down a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps." The editorial also noted that Rentboy.com had billed about $10 million over the past five years, adding, "That’s less revenue than an average McDonald’s franchise generates." But despite all that, the feds are going ahead with Hurant's prosecution, and had their (and his) first day in court on Wednesday, where Hurant pled "not guilty" to the charges, and it was reported that the government is in the process of trying to work out a plea deal with Hurant, who faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted on all counts. "Mr. Hurant did not commit a crime," said Michael Tremonte, Hurant's attorney, after the court proceedings ended. "He ran his business openly and lawfully for 20 years. It makes no sense to single him out for prosecution as the government has done. We look forward to his full vindication at trial." Six workers at the Rentboy offices who were also arrested at the time of the raid have not been charged, and their attorneys too have been in discussions with prosecutors. Hurant's appearance was accompanied by a large group of protesters outside the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, many displeased with the apparent sexual bias implied in charging a gay site when so many straight ones go unscathed, plus the fact that the site was one of the few which treated its advertising escorts completely aboveboard as independent contractors. "Rentboy's done," lamented Rey, a South American native who advertised on the site. "There are other outlets for us, but that was the safest. The more regulated ... It was a way to connect with people who want companionship." "It was an enterprise that was supported by the LGBT community and was recognized for so many years,” said Democratic activist Allen Roskoff, "until somebody decided 'Let's go after the gays.'" "This is a crazy prosecution," charged gay rights activist William Dobbs. "It's like something out of the last century. ... The feds don’t want to admit that bringing this case was a mistake. ... Let's hope the U.S. Attorney lets the Rentboy prosecution drop and works a lot harder on the Eric Garner NYPD chokehold case." Garner, it will be remembered, was killed by New York City police as they were attempting to subdue him for selling "loosie" cigarettes on a street corner. A Brooklyn Grand Jury failed to indict the policeman who killed Garner. Both Hurant and the U.S. Attorney's office agreed to waive 70-day time limit within which the government has to bring a defendant to trial after an indictment, and barring a plea deal beforehand, Hurant's next court date will be March 15 before Judge Margo Brody.

 
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