BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | The arrests of rentboy.com’s chief executive and six employees of the leading gay escort website are drawing fire from some corners of the LGBT community that see the raid as a waste of federal dollars in pursuit of a victimless crime.
“Rentboy has been an institution in the gay community since 1997,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBT political group. “There are people who need networks like this in order to have sex… An institution like this, which has served the community for many years, is being picked on.”
On August 25, the US Department of Homeland Security, which was supported by the NYPD, raided the Manhattan offices of rentboy.com at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. Mainstream press outlets, which had clearly been tipped off to the raid, were there to photograph police and investigators as they carried boxes of evidence out of the office.
Jeffrey Hurant, the 50-year-old chief executive of rentboy.com, was arrested along with six employees. Hurant and the employees appear to have been arrested at their homes and were not subjected to a perp walk before TV cameras.
News of the raid prompted largely derisive comments on Facebook pages and on the websites joemygod.com, towleroad.com, and queerty.com, with some commenters arguing that prostitution should be legal. Some comments sarcastically observed that Homeland Security must believe that rentboy.com has some link to terrorism. The agency was created in response to the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In a press release, Kelly T. Currie, the acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which is headquartered in Brooklyn, said the site “attempted to present a veneer of legality, when in fact this Internet brothel made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution.”
Hurant and his colleagues are charged with promoting prostitution in the third and fourth degrees, which are a D felony and a misdemeanor, respectively, under New York State law, and violating the federal Travel Act, which bars “interstate and foreign travel or transportation in aid of racketeering enterprises.”
There is no money laundering charge in the case. The charges may change as the case progresses. The Travel Act was passed in 1961.
“The facilitation and promotion of prostitution offenses across state lines and international borders is a federal crime made even more egregious when it’s blatantly advertised by a global criminal enterprise,” said Glenn Sorge, the acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security’s New York office, in the press release. “[Homeland Security] will use its unique authorities to disrupt and dismantle such organizations and seize the millions of dollars in illegal proceeds they generate.”
The press release noted the assistance of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the district attorney for New York County, Cyrus Vance, Jr. William Bratton, the city’s police commissioner, was quoted.
“As alleged, Rentboy.com profited from the promotion of prostitution despite their claim that their advertisements were not for sexual services,” Bratton said. “Thanks to the detectives, agents, and prosecutors of the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District involved in this investigation, these individuals will be held accountable for running this racket.”
Rentboy.com is located within the confines of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, but it is the Eastern District that is prosecuting the case. The Southern District is headed by Preet Bharara, who is best known for prosecuting alleged corrupt New York City and State elected officials. The complaint that authorized the arrests noted a number of escorts who advertise on rentboy.com and reside in Brooklyn, which is in the Eastern District.
In response to an email asking why it was not prosecuting the case, the Southern District press office referred Gay City News to the Eastern District press office, which earlier supplied the complaint and press release. The Eastern District would not comment beyond the contents of the complaint.
“It’s another chapter is the war on sex in this country, using the vast powers of Homeland Security against an escort service during the Obama administration,” said William Dobbs, a gay civil libertarian. “How does prostitution get escalated to this level of federal action?”