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Missouri AG Hawley looking for state court’s help in going after alleged sex-trafficking website

Republican Josh Hawley won the endorsement of the Missouri Farm Bureau for attorney general.
File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri is the only state in the U.S. using consumer-protection laws to pursue a website that’s accused of advertising illegal sexual activity such as human trafficking, Attorney General Josh Hawley says.

Hawley’s office says it has filed a lawsuit Thursday in state court in St. Charles as a way to try to force Backpage.com to turn over documents that Hawley contends may be helping traffickers evade prosecution in the state and elsewhere. It’s the second time Hawley has sought court intervention in recent weeks.

In an exclusive interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Hawley said at least two other states — Texas and California — are targeting Backpage on criminal grounds, charging the CEO with felony pimping and money laundering. But he believes that Missouri is the only state taking a consumer-protection route in an attempt to shut down the online business.

According to a copy of the lawsuit given to St. Louis Public Radio ahead of it being filed, Hawley’s Human Trafficking Unit alleges that the website is violating the “Missouri Merchandising Practices Act,’’ which requires truth in advertising, and bars illegal commercial activity. Hawley contends that Backpage’s staff may be offering advice to traffickers and others in the sex trade on how to advertise their activities in a way to avoid detection by police.

Hawley, a Republican, chose St. Charles’ circuit court because “the St. Louis metropolitan area is a major hot spot for trafficking.”

“We believe there are thousands of (sex-related) transactions that are taking place over Backpage in the state of Missouri, in St. Charles, and everywhere,’’ Hawley said. "Human trafficking is an epidemic nationally and it's an epidemic in the state of Missouri, and it's a growing problem."

Two area members of Congress, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Rep. Ann Wagner, have been longstanding outspoken critics of Backpage.com. McCaskill is the co-author of a congressional report on the website and is the top Democrat on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has been targeting Backpage for more than a year. Wagner has been a leading voice for years in the U.S. House against sex trafficking.

Hawley and Wagner have both been cited as possible challengers to McCaskill in 2018.  

When asked, the attorney general emphasized that their common concerns about sex trafficking reflected the moral issues at stake, not politics.

Hawley rejects Backpage’s claim, which came last year in response to the congressional probe,  that it had shut down the part of its website believed to be hosting most of the sex-trafficking activities. He contended that traffickers and those involved in prostitution simply moved their ads to other parts of the website, and simply changed the language on their postings to make their activities less obvious.

Lawyers for Backpage.com didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.