Under What Jurisdiction Did DHS Send Out an Army of Agents Against RentBoy?

The NYT had a great editorial that echoes my amazement that the Department of Homeland Security sent an army of agents to take down RentBoy.com this week.

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. This week, the website’s founder and six employees were charged with violating federal law by facilitating paid sexual encounters.

Kelly Currie, the acting United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, trumpeted the case against Rentboy.com, calling it an “Internet brothel” that “made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution.” The website pulled in $10 million over the past five years, charging escorts for publishing their profiles, according to prosecutors. That’s less revenue than an average McDonald’s franchise generates.

[snip]

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 defendants have not been accused of exploiting sex workers, featuring minors on the website, financial crimes or other serious offenses that would warrant a federal prosecution.

DHS doesn’t seem to know why DHS was involved either. In a statement to the NYT, ICE’s spokesperson, Khaalid Walls, suggests ICE’s jurisdiction arises because this involves the illegitimate movement of people, goods and currency in domestic and foreign transactions, which suggesting the things moved were prostitutes.

Mr. Walls said: “As the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE is responsible for the enforcement of laws that promote the legitimate movement of people, goods and currency in domestic and foreign transactions. Our allegation with this case is that the business and its principals purported itself to be an escort service while promoting criminal acts, namely illegal prostitution.”

I’m rather curious that DHS claims jurisdiction over the movement of goods domestically. But I’m also not sure how a website constitutes moving anything.

But the claim this is about prostitution seems to conflict with ICE’s description of the bust on its website, which claims it’s a financial crime.

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 10.19.00 AM

As I’ve suggested, I wouldn’t be surprised if ICE used all those hard drives they seized this week to put together the money laundering case they leaked to some outlets. But they haven’t charged it yet. Which would mean they used the prostitution claim to take down an advertising site to be able to get the evidence to charge something that might be more squarely in ICE’s jurisdiction.

Add in the fact that NY DA Cy Vance — the entity that would have direct jurisdiction over prostitution headquartered in NYC — took his office off this release, and I’m genuinely confused about what DHS is doing.

None of that will mean the RentBoy defendants will be able to challenge this on jurisdictional grounds. But it does raise questions about what DHS is really doing.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

28 replies
  1. wallace says:

    quote”None of that will mean the RentBoy defendants will be able to challenge this on jurisdictional grounds. But it does raise questions about what DHS is really doing.”unquote

    They’re Just trying to tie up loose ends from the Ashley Madison leak. You know..just in case someone in DHS/FBI/DEA/ATF/STATE/DOJ/CONGRESS/JUDICIAL etc etc..is on this list too. Can’t be too safe..ya know.

    fuck. Now DHS is a nationwide Vice squad. Next thing you know they’ll be sending agents to Girl/Boy Scout meetings. You know..just in case there’s something weird going on.

    • wallace says:

      quote”You know..just in case there’s something weird going on.”unquote

      yeah,..rumor has it there’s a nation wide $billion black market for special cookies. Sneaky girl scouts. Running a cartel. Whudda thunk.

  2. wallace says:

    ps…now that the premier online connection for gay escorts is outta business…I’ve got $1k that says heads are exploding in WDC and the phones at DHS HQ are ringing off the hook. Meanwhile, all alternatives are being booked up for the next two years, while the WDC elite are calling in all favors.

  3. galljdaj says:

    It occurs to me the first such ‘take down’ under the claimed authority should have been the Secret Service, the White House Staff, the Pilots and Support Staff of White House 1 & 2, for the international sex ring run by lil obama as CEO he too should be stood in the docket.

    All ahead of RentBoy Defendants!

  4. bloopie2 says:

    Was it okay for the Feds to take down Al Capone for tax violations, when they couldn’t get him for gangsta crap?

  5. bloopie2 says:

    Maybe there aren’t enough terrorist threats around to keep the entirety of DHS busy, so they need to do something that spends their money so they can get the same or a bigger budget next year? Much of the world operates that way, why not them?

    • TomVet says:

      Bingo! You get today’s Nail on Head Award.
      .
      It’s the same reason they’re fighting the NSA bulk collection cases to keep us from finding out that it’s not really about those one or two “terrorists” but for domestic control. And they need their huge budget or that billion dollar box in Utah will become a broom closet at our expense.

  6. EH says:

    The conjecture I like and feel may not be too far off the mark was that they were raided in order to prevent an Ashley Madison nightmare that outed a lot of people who would…prefer not to be outed.

  7. Mindrayge says:

    Is this case, in any way, related to the situation with Tim Geithner’s brother getting outed offering money to a male escort from Dallas to fly that escort to Chicago to meet him?

    Is there someone important (or several important people) that might be in the databases RentBoy might have had?

    • galljdaj says:

      There’s mountain of truthful logic in your analysis, virtually the only times our Govt acts proactively is to save there ass(es) , all three branches!

    • emptywheel says:

      I addressed that in my last post on this.

      They had an undercover at the Hookies awards in March. The Geithner story was in July. So while it’s not impossible that the story was the final straw, they clearly were investigating before that.

  8. ThingsComeUndone says:

    Prostitution cases should be tried by local Prosecutors.Any crime that crosses state lines can be tried by the FBI. Homeland Security handles terrorism so unless a bunch of Fundy Muslims are on the down low Homeland has no Jurisdiction.
    I think the next question is motive why go after them and why now? I’m sure their files have lots of potential for blackmail.
    Who’s politics do the federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and the Homeland Security who ordered this support? Who’s politics do they have problems with? Are they protecting a customer of RentBoy’s or are they looking to squeeze a customer?

  9. ThingsComeUndone says:

    What is the big deal every shady massage place in a bad neighborhood is probably doing the same thing this site was, only with trafficked foreign girls which would make them a more likely target for Homeland Security.
    Money Laundering? 10 million in 5 years is that all, as you noted is less than what a McDonald’s franchise makes a year Drug Dealers, Internet Fraud, Identity Theft, other assorted crime make lots more money and I’m sure they all launder their profits.
    Where is the threat to the American Homeland?

    • wallace says:

      quote”Where is the threat to the American Homeland?”unquote

      American Homeland? ha. The “threat” is to WDC political elite. If the list of customers for Rentboy.com was leaked.. I’d submit..half of the WDC located USG would implode. And they ain’t about to let that happen. I’d also bet good money Graham had something to do with Rentboy’s takedown.

  10. galljdaj says:

    Well now, I hope wallace is correct, in that rentboy has been hacked; and rentboy CEO has a full set of records stashed! And both parties are waiting to drop the other shoe! What fun!

  11. Don Bacon says:

    Under What Jurisdiction Did DHS Send Out an Army of Agents ?
    .
    DHS apparently doesn’t recognize any bounds on its activities. In my neck of the woods the internal Border Patrol checkpoints established on freeways and secondary roads to snag illegal aliens who somehow made across the border, are now being used primarily as narcotics checkpoints, complete with armed thugs and sniffer dogs.
    .
    The “short” immigration inspections have been okayed by a complaisant Supreme Court which found that momentary delays are worthwhile because they promote security. The Supremes never authorized regular drug inspections.
    .
    A loss of freedom for increased security is a concept the, unfortunately, a lot of Americans accept and even enjoy (a lot of my friends also).
    .
    Recently, at an internal freeway checkpoint, after a dog supposedly alerted I was directed into a secondary inspection station. Exit the vehicle, patted down, go sit on a bench while a German shepherd prowled through my vehicle. Welcome to Amerika.

  12. Rayne says:

    We still don’t know all the hows and whys behind the disclosure of Elliot Spitzer’s transactions with purported prostitution ring. (By purported I mean we don’t know if the business itself was a front.) I know we’ve speculated on the use of fuzzy discretion on the part of banks to disclose “unusual transactions” to the feds, because the payments didn’t meet other criteria like dollar amounts triggering automatic disclosure.

    Is there some regulation we’re missing, maybe something related to Ye Olde Fusion Centers, which pulls in across federal agencies when “unusual transactions” spawn reports to the feds? Food for thought.

  13. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    I swore off on making comments on the internet a few months ago, but I will make an exception in this instance. First, a disclosure: I am a gay man old enough to remember when vice cops routinely posed as customers in gay bars, hoping to snare a gay man for alleged sexual misconduct and, in the process, destroy his reputation, possibly sending the man to jail.

    Should a crackdown on RentBoy come as a surprise? I don’t think so. The Obama Administration’s priorities in criminal prosecution are surprisingly similar to those of the prior administration of George W. Bush. Under President Obama, there have been no prosecutions of torturers or banksters. Meanwhile, there has been continued vigorous prosecution of the drug laws and almost no instances where police officers have been charged by the feds for civil rights violations. Also, in my opinion, the reason that Governor Spitzer was prosecuted was because of his unwillingness to play ball in keeping his hands off of Wall Street.

    All across America we are witnessing police departments use aggressive tactics that vaguely remind us of the Jim Crow era of policing. Instead of using vagrancy and loitering laws, the police now stop African-Americans for minor traffic violations or for petty offenses like jaywalking. Meanwhile, antiwar activists and whistleblowers face increased surveillance and possible prosecution for their activities. In this environment we should not be surprised that gay men are also being targeted. Sorrowfully, America is gradually reverted to the late sixties when Presidents Nixon and LBJ unleashed the CIA and FBI on the American people.

    • Rayne says:

      Yes, very likely this prosecution of RentBoy is business as usual wrt gays. I do think we are seeing some positive social change for LGBT citizens — can you imagine Sen. Lindsey Graham running for POTUS 20 years ago, for example? Or an openly transgender staffer working in the White House?

      I suspect as I noted in my most recent comment there’s other reasons why RentBoy was shut down. It’s possible this may not be prosecution of U.S. folks per se because they are gay, but either an end to a potential security exposure posed by risk of blackmail, or a confrontation of a known compromise forced on member(s) of RentBoy. It’s hard to compromise someone any further once they’ve been outed in this manner.

      But U.S. has been very cruel to its LGBT citizens and guests across its history. This won’t be any more kind, even if this was the case that security risks are sewn up with RentBoy’s take-down.

      And thanks for commenting. I do hope you’ll feel free to comment here at emptywheel even if you’ve sworn off the rest of the internet.

  14. Rayne says:

    Mulling over some research on a post I’m writing, came across old article about GCHQ using sex and “dirty tricks,” according to Snowden docs.

    What’s the chances ALL these feds are involved because this RentBoy take-down is really an op roll-up? Maybe somebody else’s op, hence the prosecution?

    And perhaps the hacking of Ashley Madison was timed to coincide, rolling up OUR op at the same time — hence no obvious punishment of government employees caught up in this so-called hack?

    What’s the chances these roll-ups were intended to force targets into new, more covert ops? I can think of timing-related reasons why all of this would happen in sync, just now…

  15. wallace says:

    ps.. quote”But U.S. has been very cruel to its LGBT citizens and guests across its history.”unquote

    The US ain’t got nothin up on the UK…

    quote” Mr Turing was chemically castrated as part of his “gross indecency” sentence and died two years later, aged 41, having apparently committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.”unquote

    Gross indecency. right. Speaking of the UK parliament..

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3174689/Lord-Snorty-Blair-crony-responsible-behaviour-peers-filmed-taking-cocaine-200-night-prostitute-s-breasts-romp-two-escorts-discounted-flat.html

    sheeezushchrist..if hypocrisy was weather the UK government would be a fucking 5.9 hurricane.. I mean.. gross indecency? Try 1000 years of the British monarchy…ha!
    Moreover, this..

    quote”I think 49,000 is a low estimate of the men convicted,” he added. “I would estimate somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000.”unquote

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/ed-miliband-vows-labour-would-bring-in-turings-law-pardoning-prosecuted-gay-men-10082052.html

    Darwin should have banged his head against the wall till he bled to death..

    • Denis says:

      Yesterday the UK press lit up with the latest on MI6 spy Gareth Williams, whose body was found in a bath tub in his safe-house 5 years ago. The body was inside a locked gym bag. Scotland Yard: Nothing suspicious here, move along. Probably suicide.
      .
      The new news is that just prior to his death Williams — a math genius and cryptographer — had hacked into Bill Clinton’s private diary. Williams had been working with NSA and had just returned to London. The Clinton hack was likely possible because of codes and passwords Williams obtained from his work with NSA. The timing is suspicious — the new news release implies that the Clintons were somehow responsible for this MI6 spy. I mean any shit that hits one Clinton automatically splatters the other, and for good reason.
      .
      And some folks think Snowden and Assange are cry babies for expressing their concerns that CIA would take them out if the chance arose.
      .
      The NZ Herald has a concise article updating the Williams mystery.
      .
      http://m.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11505559

  16. wallace says:

    quote”The NZ Herald has a concise article updating the Williams mystery.”unquote

    From the “Dumbest Statements EVAH!” department…
    quote”She said she was satisfied “on the balance of probabilities that Gareth was killed unlawfully”, as it was likely someone else had put his body in the bag and locked it.”unquote

    On the balance of probabilities. Killed. Unlawfully. right.
    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…HOHOHOHOHOHOHO…please..please..stop yer killing me.
    wait..wait..it gets better..
    ” it was likely someone else had put his body in the bag and locked it.”
    You gotta be fucking kidding..right?

    no..really..it gets EVEN better….
    from the parallel universe of Scotland Yard…

    quote”But a year later, Scotland Yard ended a review of the investigation, saying it was more likely Williams had locked himself in the bag and that no one else was involved. “unquote

    more likely. Locked himself in a bag. right.
    (shaking head in disbelief)
    bartender..a bottle of TwoRollingEyes beer and three shots of DoubleFacePalm please…oh fuckit..leave the bottle.

  17. wallace says:

    ps… if EVAH there was living proof that the BRITISH are the dumbest creatures in the universe.. that article is it.

  18. wallace says:

    wait..wait.. I almost can’t stand it. I mean..dumb is one thing..but I’ve never seen something so fucking stupid in my entire 70 years on this planet. I mean rock-hard stupid. Dehydrated-rock-hard stupid. Stupid, so stupid it goes way beyond the stupid we know into a whole different dimension of stupid. Trans-stupid stupid. Meta-stupid. Stupid collapsed on itself so far that even the neutrons have collapsed. Stupid gotten so dense that no intellect can escape. Singularity stupid. Blazing hot mid-day sun on Mercury stupid. Those people emit more stupid in one second than our entire galaxy emits in a year. Quasar stupid. Nothing in our universe can really be this stupid. Perhaps this is some primordial fragment from the original big bang of stupid. Some pure essence of a stupid so uncontaminated by anything else it must be a new particle of stupid. Even the Thermodynamic laws of stupidity doesn’t describe this.. even Cippolini’s 5 laws of Stupidity is clueless. I submit..even the Grand Unified Theory of Stupidity is now null and void!!

    At least I can say ..in my lifetime..I was fortunate enough to witness the creation of Stupid Energy. Lord help us.

    • Denis says:

      Sorry to get you so worked up, Wally, but that was some great stuff in your responses. Had to pick m’self up off the floor to tap in this apology.

      The stupidest thing in your 70 yrs? Well, I’m only 10, but this is the dumbest thing I’ve seen in my life, too. Barely ahead of Colin Powell’s UN presentation in 2003.

      Ya, just gotta’ laugh and keep goin’, eh?

  19. Roots In Quicksand says:

    The US government has adopted so many aspects of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ such as endless foreign wars and mass surveillance, it shouldn’t be any great surprise that it has created the Junior Anti-Sex League. Welcome to the world of Newspeak where mass murderers (such as the dildo who attacked unarmed parishioners at Emanuel AME Church) are not terrorists but those facilitating consenting adults interacting are raided by the Thought Police.

Comments are closed.