The chief executive of rentboy.com was sentenced to six months in federal prison during a hearing that demonstrated the tensions the federal government created when it raided the website’s Manhattan offices in August 2015 and shut the escort site down.
“I am considering sentencing your client to six months incarceration,” Margo Brodie, the judge who presided over the case, told Michael Tremonte, the attorney for Jeffrey Hurant, near the start of the August 2 hearing. “I’ll just tell you what I am struggling with.”
Brodie said that during the 17 years that Hurant ran the website, he performed “good work” and she noted “how much he has contributed to the LGBT community” during that time.
“On the other hand, what I have before me is almost two decades of committing a crime, and Mr. Hurant knowing that he was committing a crime,” Brodie said.
Hurant was arrested in 2015 along with six employees of the site. They were charged with violating the federal Travel Act, which makes certain state crimes a violation of federal law when they are committed across state lines. The underlying state law violation was promoting prostitution. The charges against the six employees were dropped last year. Hurant was indicted on two counts of violating a federal money laundering statute and one count of violating the Travel Act. He pleaded guilty last year.
The arrests sparked protests in four cities, condemnations from many leading LGBTQ and civil liberties groups, and even opposition from the New York Times editorial page. In at least some of the protests, the theme was that it was the laws that criminalize prostitution that are unjust and that Hurant, in building the site, had removed prostitution from the view of those who object to it and made it safer for sex workers and their clients. From this perspective, Hurant was resisting unjust laws, the impressive amount of money he earned from rentboy.com notwithstanding.
But court proceedings require criminal defendants to admit that the law is right and they are wrong and so Hurant gave the law its due. When he spoke, he noted the many good actions that rentboy.com had taken on behalf of its advertisers and the community.
“I disagree with the law that I broke,” he said, but added, “Today, I understand that none of that changes the fact that what I did broke the law… While I do believe our company mitigated many of the dangers associated with sex work, we could not get rid of them entirely.”
Brodie then put Hurant on the spot when she asked him, “Tell me why you believe a sentence of six months incarceration would be an inappropriate sentence, if you do believe that.”
Hurant hesitated, saying, “I really don’t want to put my foot in my mouth.” Brodie assured him, saying, “Nothing you say will cause me to increase the sentence.” He finally responded with, “I did the best I could to run a company that was doing good.”
The government wanted a sentence of 15 to 21 months, but was reduced to arguing that prison time was necessary for the sake of deterring others from committing the same crime.
“I don’t know how we go forward saying we believe in respect for the law if we say after 17 years all we’re doing is take away some portion of the money,” said Tyler Smith, the assistant US attorney who prosecuted the case for the Eastern District of New York’s US Attorney’s Office, which is headquartered in Brooklyn.
Prior to the hearing, the federal government seized roughly $1.5 million that it said were the proceeds from the business that were held in various bank accounts controlled by Hurant.
Toward the close of the hearing, Hurant was given a week to submit a date for his surrender to federal authorities to begin his sentence. He will also have a year of post-release supervision accompanied by some onerous financial and medical disclosure requirements.
Once he exited the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, Hurant spoke to reporters and said what he was unable to say in the courtroom.
“Sex work has a place in a healthy society,” he said. “I urge that we resist laws that limit who we touch and how.”
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