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Rentboy CEO Strikes Deal for Prison, Millions in Fines

Rentboy CEO Strikes Deal for Prison, Millions in Fines

Some LGBT activists said the case was a witch hunt against sex workers who had harmed no one.

The government could get $10 million in a deal that closes Rentboy.com and sends its former CEO to prison, reports the Associated Press.

Jeffrey Hurant pleaded guilty on Friday to promoting prostitution and conspiring to commit money laundering, the AP reports. The plea deal sends Hurant to prison for no more than two years and imposes a $10 million fine or less, with sentencing decided in February.

A legal defense fund had been set up after Homeland Security raided the site's offices and arrested Hurant and others. More than 200 donors contributed more than $63,000 to defend Hurant. He shared a statement on Friday on the Facebook page for the fund that echoed what he admitted in court:

"Between January 1996 and August 2015, I owned and operated a website called Rentboy.com. I agreed with others to accept payments from multiple advertisers and promoted their exchange of sexual conduct in return for a fee in violation of New York State law."

Activists accused the government of attacking LGBT people who were often facing hard times, who were trying to make money while discriminated against in the workforce, or while homeless. With rallies in West Hollywood and across the country, they argued sex work harmed no one and should be decriminalized.

"This was not justice but an abuse of power," wrote Kate D'Adamo, national policy advocate at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, in an op-ed for The Advocate in February. She and other groups -- including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National Center for Transgender Equality -- said the government was actually attacking Rentboy for distributing information about prostitution and what's legal and what isn't.

(RELATED: Sex Workers on What Their Work Means)

"If this kind of information-sharing is criminalized as 'promoting prostitution,' even peers and service organizations will be reluctant to do it," she wrote. "Already, reasonable and proven harm-reduction tactics are being criminalized: telling someone which client recently robbed another worker, letting someone use your phone to type out an ad because his service was cut off, using your credit card to pay for a room so your friend doesn't have to work on the street. At the Sex Workers Project we get calls from those in the sex trade who carry 'promoting' charges for this exact kind of peer support. The Rentboy raid elevates the level of fear we face when we are just trying to keeping our peers and community safe from harm."

Without explaining why, the AP removed a tweet that had automatically linked directly to the website in its reporting on the case:

Hurant's plea deal is unlikely to assuage worry from activists who fear the government could prosecute sex worker advocates.

The news comes as the offices of Backpage were raided on Thursday by California law enforcement. The CEO of the classifieds website, Carl Ferrer, was arrested and accused of pimping adults and children. Shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin were also charged.

"Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal," said attorney general Kamala Harris, who is also running for Senate. "Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world's top online brothel."

The site was reportedly making $2.5 million per month in California alone, with much of the revenue coming from its "adult services" section, which helped escorts find clients.

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