On Monday afternoon, lawyers representing men caught in a sex work review website sting showed up in King County Superior Court with an unusual and bold request: to disqualify the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from prosecuting their cases.
King County prosecutors aren’t typically disqualified from doing their jobs. But the reason for doing so, the lawyers say, is tied to more than $140,000 awarded to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from a national sex work abolition group called Demand Abolition. The case rests on thousands of documents showing how the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office collaborated with the Massachusetts-based Demand Abolition, including correspondence over weekly phone meetings, media training, and strategies for dealing with reporters and sex worker advocates. (The Intercept also published a story on Demand Abolition’s influence on the office.)
Lawyers representing the defendants say King County prosecutors changed the way they handled cases after the influx of money from Demand Abolition.
“We’re used to seeing special interest groups go down to Olympia and hawk their particular beliefs down there,” James Dixon, a lawyer representing one of the defendants, told Judge John Chun on Monday afternoon. “What makes this case unusual is that, instead, it’s through the King County Prosecutor’s Office that Demand Abolition is attempting to go ahead and change the law, change social policy.”
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office doesn’t deny that it’s received funding from Demand Abolition. In a time of lean budgets, it wouldn’t be the only agency to do so. Demand Abolition has grant teams in Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Houston, and more. But King County attorneys also say Demand Abolition had nothing to do with directing increased sex buyer prosecutions. In 2012, for example, two years before the Demand Abolition grant, senior King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey wrote a report for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office recommending that prosecutors shift their focus from charging sex workers to charging people who bought sex from them.
Still, Dixon and his colleagues say Demand Abolition’s involvement encouraged King County to significantly boost enforcement efforts and change the way they prosecuted people who bought sex. And in 2018--after the World Health Organization and Amnesty International have endorsed research and policies showing that decriminalizing sex work, including buying sex, actually keeps sex workers safer—King County’s involvement with Demand Abolition raises questions about why prosecutors are still increasingly criminalizing the demand-side of sex work.
In January 2014, King County prosecutors submitted a grant proposal to Demand Abolition requesting $160,000 over two years to fund a sex work abolition strategy called “demand reduction.”
The Demand Abolition program launched six years ago out of a larger organization called Hunt Alternatives, a foundation spearheaded by Swanee Hunt, a former US ambassador to Austria and the daughter of a conservative Christian oil billionaire. Hunt’s foundation, which was formed seven years after her father’s death in 1974, has lashed out against the sex trade with zeal. In Hunt’s view, the strategy to eliminate sex trafficking and the strategy to eliminate sex work are one and the same: reducing demand for all paid sex. Hunt has been vocal about her view that any kind of sex work is fundamentally wrong and exploitative.
“Our vision is of a cultural shift in the United States, and by extension the world, to a society that no longer tolerates the buying of human beings for sex,” Hunt said in a 2012 press release announcing a Demand Abolition conference.
As a result, the 2014 Demand Abolition grant called for local proposals to come up with an education program for sex buyers and a public awareness campaign to reduce demand for sex work. The organization also asked applicants to suggest additional reduction strategies for a 20-month pilot, though noted this was not a requirement.
On their grant application, the King County prosecutors laid out their plan: public awareness, buyer intervention, and “enhanced law enforcement efforts targeting buyers through reverse sting operations and cross-jurisdictional investigations and training.”
King County would target buyers through “increased threat of arrest and criminal consequences,” they wrote, increase the number of arrests and prosecutions, increase publicity around those arrests, and add more consequences for sex buyers like car impoundment, increased fines, community service, and a place on the sex offender registry.
According to its grant proposal, King County would aim to increase the number of arrests and prosecutions of sex buyers by 50 percent. (Demand Abolition asked that applicants reduce “demand” for sex by 20 percent.)
That April, Demand Abolition awarded King County a $50,000 grant to go towards the salary of Val Richey, the senior deputy prosecuting attorney who first recommended prosecutors switch tactics. Richey was relieved of some trial duties to focus on the grant work. As part of the grant expectations, Demand Abolition wrote, Richey and Peter Quailliotine, an employee of Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), also a grantee, would have to “respond promptly to Demand Abolition’s requests,” fulfill grant deliverables as part of a quarterly work plan, partake in weekly meetings with Demand Abolition strategists and researchers. They would also be expected to keep in weekly contact with the grant’s core team members—a group that included representatives from local sex work abolition groups and philanthropists.
A month later, Richey started talking to local law enforcement about his office’s project to “address the demand for commercial sex.” Then, four months after receiving the grant award, Richey wrote an e-mail to police chiefs, detectives, and senior staffers from Bellevue, Federal Way, the King County Sheriff’s Office, Des Moines, and Kent, outlining the launch of a new initiative that October. In anticipation of the launch, Richey requested that police commit to “one john/buyer sting between now and mid-September.”
Richey also said that while some agencies had already conducted stings for adults interested in child sexual exploitation, his office wanted law enforcement to get into the practice of conducting stings on adults interested in buying sex from other adults.
“Recognizing that some of you have reported hesitancy on the part of your city attorneys to file adult buyer sting cases, I am volunteering to meet with your city attorneys to discuss our project and encourage the filing of charges in sting cases,” Richey wrote.
In response for a request for comment on this e-mail, Richey said: “To my recollection, some cities had complained that prosecuting buyers didn’t address community complaints about street prostitution (many businesses wanted more prosecutions of people in prostitution), and that some city prosecutors were not satisfied with how stings were being conducted.”
In September, more e-mails from the prosecutor’s office show that Richey introduced a Seattle Times reporter to Demand Abolition for a feature story to coincide with the launch of King County’s new program, “Buyer Beware.” While the Seattle Times reporter worked on her feature, the prosecutor’s office worked on a press release for the project with the grant’s core team-members. One draft of the release included a headline saying the project would “crack down on prostitution,” but team members edited it to “reduce demand for prostitution.”
The Times, which had the exclusive on the story, eventually ran two glowing stories on the day of the launch: one addressing adult stings, and the other on stings ensnaring men looking for sex with minors specifically. The Times quoted Richey as saying that over three months that summer, seven police agencies had arrested 80 men for attempting to buy sex from adults, and 25 men for trying to have sex with underage teenagers. A week later, Demand Abolition highlighted the Times story in its e-mail newsletter: “Launch of demand-focused campaign in Seattle wins wide coverage,” the group wrote.
The following March, the prosecutor’s office applied for another grant from Demand Abolition, and won $41,667 to go towards Richey’s salary. The following year, in 2016, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office won $50,000.
Almost exactly two years after the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office applied for its first grant from Demand Abolition, a popular website used by both sex buyers and sex workers to review experiences—or review prospective clients—went dark. Thereviewboard.net, or TRB, allowed clients to “rate” sex workers, but also allowed sex workers to compare site users’ histories with “bad date” lists to avoid danger.
The day TRB went down, authorities replaced its forums with the logos of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Bellevue Police Department, and the FBI.
Savannah Sly, a Seattleite who was serving as president of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), described the shutdown as “extremely frightening” at the time.
"It's like punching into work and seeing FBI tape all around your building,” she told The Stranger at the time. “I think there's going to be a whole lot of sex workers around Seattle who have a hard time making rent this month, who are extremely concerned about their safety and worried if they're going to get a knock on their doors from police officers."
The following morning, prosecutors, police, and federal law enforcement held a press conference in downtown Seattle for a "large scale human trafficking investigation” they claimed netted TRB. Authorities had seized the website, arrested 14 people, and rescued, they said, 12 victims. King County prosecutors charged 13 people with “promoting prostitution in the second degree,” a Class C felony that had typically been used against pimps.
None of the 13 people had trafficking charges filed against them, as the press release had suggested. And while the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said they gave the women involved an opportunity to speak with victim advocates who might give them access for T visas (a special kind of visa for trafficking victims), only “a couple” of them did speak to people offering services. (“We do not know where they are now,” Richey said by e-mail.) Over the ensuing months, charges were filed against Microsoft and Amazon executives, a Boeing engineer, a retired accountant who later committed suicide, and others. Their crimes: posting on The Review Board and “promoting prostitution.”
According to the official narrative, the men charged in the TRB sting belonged to an elite group of users who referred to themselves as “the LOEG,” or “The League.” They held get-togethers to discuss experiences, and ran two more websites: One that was password-protected and offered reviews, similar to TRB, and another other called “kgirldelights.com,” which contained ads for Korean sex workers.
A King County Sheriff’s Office detective, Luke Hillman, had gone undercover starting in 2013 to infiltrate “The League,” according to charging documents. In order to gain entry, he had to meet face-to-face with a man named Charles Peters, who went as PETERRABBIT online. Detective Hillman later went to a League meeting at a Bellevue bar and secretly recorded Peters talking about his experiences with Korean sex workers. Hillman tried to arrange a meeting with one sex worker himself, but failed for lack of references; he asked Peters for references, and Peters agreed.
“Following the date, Peters asked me to post a review of the Portland Korean female prostituted person in exchange for his assistance with the booker,” Hillman wrote in his charging documents. “Peters also added several posts to ‘the League’ website, discussing in detail the process he used to vouch for other members.”
But sex workers and their advocates say this two-way online vetting process is one of the primary ways to ensure their safety. In June of 2014, the FBI shut down MyRedbook.com, a popular advertising and vetting tool for sex workers. A year later, the Sacramento SWOP chapter published a study they conducted among 44 local sex workers, 18 percent of whom said they were forced to work on the street after the website shuttered. Among those newly-working on the street, nearly two-thirds reported increased violence, including rape. In a letter to California senators John Thune and Bill Nelson, Sacramento SWOP founder Kristen DiAngelo—herself a former trafficking victim—cited this research. She said online publications actually provided more safety, not cover, for sex workers and trafficking victims alike.
“Let me be clear: I have never met a sex trafficking victim that was set free because an online venue disappeared, but have met victims who were made less safe when those venues were shut down,” DiAngelo wrote.
Nevertheless, in 2011 and 2013, the US State Department endorsed fighting trafficking by “reduc[ing] the demand for commercial sex.” And in 2013, King County’s Val Richey invited Michael Shively, an academic who was contracted by Demand Abolition in 2010 to develop their initial “national action plan” on sex trafficking, to give a presentation at the Prosecutor’s Office. (In King County’s reply brief to the motion to dismiss, the county cites Shively as a “national expert” without mentioning his funding from Demand Abolition.)
When I reached out to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg in 2015 about the research behind the idea that reducing demand for any form of paid sex would cut down on trafficking, he referred me to an essay from anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley and cultural anthropologist Debra Boyer, the executive director of the Organization for Prostitution survivors (OPS). Boyer had conducted research with teenagers who had been arrested for prostitution and sex workers who made their living on the streets in the 1980s and ‘90s, and in 2008, provided an assessment for the City of Seattle on estimates of minors exploited in the sex industry.
Boyer believes that prostitution is never fully consensual; that it “always starts with some form of coercion.” Richey concurs. “Survivors of exploitation have consistently and powerfully reported that sex buyers and traffickers put prostituted people at risk," he said by e-mail.
But in the age of online advertising for sex work, many others disagree.
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s strategy is at odds with recent, peer-reviewed research on the matter. In 2010, two economics researchers found that, between information drawn from a sex work ratings website and a survey of 685 sex workers, sex workers who advertised online actually had lower levels of risky sexual practices that yielded a lower risk of spreading sexually transmitted infections.
In another study published in The Review of Economic Studies in December 2017, researchers studied a natural experiment that occurred when a Rhode Island District Court Judge decriminalized indoor sex work. They found that while decriminalization increased the size of the indoor sex work market, reports of raped sex workers fell 30 percent, and gonorrhea rates plummeted 40 percent.
The primary author on those two studies, economist Scott Cunningham, told the Huffington Post this month that his research showed that online platforms like ratings websites and Craigslist appear to actually help street workers, who face astronomical rates of violence, create more autonomy and move their work to safer, indoor locations. Recent research he’s done suggested that after Craigslist created an “erotic services” section, homicides of women sex workers fell by 17 percent.
“This technology puts tools in their hands,” Cunningham told the Huffington Post. “It keeps them considerably safer and could potentially save their lives.”
Cunningham’s studies fall in line with other studies conducted over the last two decades. The World Health Organization (WHO) says decriminalizing sex work could reduce new HIV infections in sex workers by 46 percent. As a result of work conducted by WHO and others, Amnesty International adopted a policy in 2016 that called for decriminalizing the selling and buying of sex.
Amnesty’s policy stated that the criminalization of sex work forces “sex workers to operate covertly in ways that compromise their safety, prohibit actions that sex workers take to maximize their safety, and serve to deny sex workers support or protection from government officials.”
After shutting down TRB, King County prosecutors filed charges against Charles and other alleged members of “The League” for promoting prostitution, arguing that the group was “dedicated to the commercial sexual exploitation of women, particularly foreign women brought into the United States for prostitution purposes.” The League’s posts, officials said, contained tips on how to avoid the police. Authorities additionally claimed that Peters engaged in exploitation by having sex with “likely hundreds” of women, paying them $300 an hour. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office argued that Peters and the League “directly expanded and increased” the market for sex work in the Pacific Northwest.
Two years later, after amassing 100,000 documents of discovery outlining the coordination between King County prosecutors and Demand Abolition, now Peters’ lawyers are arguing that prosecutors never would have gone after The League with felony charges were it not for Demand Abolition’s involvement.
“Less than two years after Demand Abolition started paying the King County Prosecutor’s Office, we have what they have referred to as ‘unprecedented’ felony charges that are being brought against buyers,” Dixon told the court. “This hasn’t been done before. That’s why they used the word ‘unprecedented.’”
Figures from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office show that second-degree “promoting prostitution” charges doubled between 2014 and 2015, the first two years of the Demand Abolition's grant awards. In 2016, that number doubled again, though the following year, when Demand Abolition reduced its grant funding, plummeted by 75 percent.
But the county claims Demand Abolition had nothing to do with prosecutions. “No prosecution was ever contemplated, initiated, pursued, negotiated or taken to trial as part of the Demand Abolition trial project,” the county’s reply brief notes.
When asked whether the organization ever directly recommended that its grantees increase buyer prostitutions, a spokesman from Demand Abolition e-mailed a statement saying it was proud of the work accomplished by its grantees.
The statement read:
“Through the CEASE Network (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation), Demand Abolition connects law enforcement agencies, nonprofits, survivor leaders, and community members around the common goal of reducing demand for illegal commercial sex. We are motivated by an urgent need to eliminate harms caused to women and girls whose lives are jeopardized by this exploitative industry— a direct result of the demand created by sex buyers.”
The statement also noted that due to financial constraints, it cut funding to its CEASE awardees by a third in 2017.
But even though King County initiated the TRB sting before the Demand Abolition grant, e-mails between prosecutors and Demand Abolition raise questions about the non-profit’s involvement in prosecutors’ activities.
A month before the TRB raid, for example, Demand Abolition’s then-executive director, Ziba Cranmer, introduced Val Richey to an FBI agent involved in taking down MyRedbook.com. “He is working on a project that could benefit from your learnings with MyRedBook and wanted to ask you a few questions,” Cranmer wrote. “I suspect it would be better addressed offline so I will leave you guys to connect directly!”
Prior to The League’s arrests, too, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office worked with a media strategist hired by Demand Abolition to craft a press release. The strategist suggested, for example, that prosecutors “add a catchy headline,” and sent a list of reporters to Richey to help spread the message. Six months earlier, the same strategist had worked with Richey on another press release, and urged Richey to use the term “sex trafficking,” despite one team member’s warning that this would make them vulnerable to the claim that they were conflating trafficking with consensual sex work.
“While I understand Peter’s concerns, I am worried that removing all references to sex trafficking will hurt our ability to grab reporters’ attention,” the strategist had written. There’s no evidence that the same media strategist directly crafted the headline that went on the final draft of the TRB press release, but it read: “Historic Raid Dismantles National Sex Trafficking Website, Shuts Down Brothels, and Charges Multiple Suspects with Unprecedented Felony Charges.” No trafficking charges were actually filed.
In an e-mail to Demand Abolition’s executive director, Cranmer, Richey also underlined Demand Abolition’s influence on the TRB sting, noting that some of the lead detectives on the case had attended Demand Abolition conferences. “So, yes, I think you can say pretty clearly that the local shift to demand-focused approach (which eventually led to this op) was heavily influenced by DA’s leadership,” Richey wrote.
Anita Khandelwal, director of public policy at the King County Department of Public Defense, says she’s concerned about the flow of money from private organizations to prosecutors’ offices.
“It raises some deep questions about whether it is consistent with the American Bar Association’s standards on taking private money, and two, whether this is a step towards privatizing what's supposed to be a public system,” Khandelwal said.
And even if Demand Abolition’s grant application didn’t explicitly ask for increased prosecutions, the fact that King County prosecutors pledged to deliver them gives Khandelwal pause.
“To me, that's a problem,” she said. “There shouldn't be any commitment to anyone other than their own private ethics and standards regarding when and where a case should be filed.”
E-mails also show how Demand Abolition influenced King County prosecutors’ interactions with the press and sex worker advocates.
When organizers with the Sex Worker Outreach Project-Seattle (SWOP-Seattle) reached out to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg in 2015 to try and set up a meeting to have their perspective heard, Richey conferred with Debra Boyer, the executive director of OPS and a member of the Demand Abolition grant team. Richey also told Satterberg that he’d be attending a Demand Abolition conference in Phoenix where interacting with SWOP would be discussed.
“There are some very strong opinions on our team that we should not engage with SWOP,” Richey wrote. “However, I am mindful of your SOTO message that legitimacy is undermined when people do not feel heard. If it is okay with you, I will discuss with some reliable advisers in Phoenix and get back to you this weekend with a recommendation.”
Richey later wrote Satterberg that his recommendation was not to meet with the sex worker advocates, but have them submit their concerns in writing instead. Still, Richey and Satterberg eventually met with SWOP. During that meeting, according to one sex worker advocate present, the two said that the sex worker advocates were bringing new information to them. Nevertheless, they also restated their view that sex work was a fundamentally harmful practice.
King County also shared concerns about the press with Demand Abolition. In June of 2016, one of the Demand Abolition grant’s “core” team-members, executive director of Seattle Against Slavery Robert Beiser, reached out to the Demand Abolition team (with Cranmer cc’d) to inform them that he’d done an interview with Melissa Gira Grant, an investigative journalist and a former sex worker.
Team members worried about how their project might be characterized by Grant, whose reporting has criticized the “end demand” approach to sex trafficking. One of the team members asked if Northwind, the PR firm hired by Demand Abolition, might have advice. “It seems like talking with her has the potential to do more harm than good,” one team member wrote. “At minimum, do we have an agreed upon way to respond to such requests as a team before we engage them?”
That same month, assistant city attorney Heidi Sargent reached out to Richey about Grant, too. “Anything more you can tell me about DA’s assessment of Melissa Gira Grant?” she asked. A few hours later, Demand Abolition sent Richey a list of articles written by or about Grant.
“It’s easy to show she has a bias, harder to find where she leaks that into her journalistic work,” Demand Abolition program coordinator Mattie Motazedian wrote to Cranmer in an e-mail forwarded to Richey, attaching a document titled “Melissa Gira Grant bias” that included interviews with Grant and screenshots of the journalist’s tweets.
This wasn’t the first time the Demand Abolition team panicked about an interview with Grant. In November 2014, shortly after King County’s “Buyer Beware” launch, Richey and Cranmer traded e-mails about the prospect of a Grant story.
“She is a really persistent and annoying sex worker activist,” Cranmer wrote Richey. “She has been harassing members of the boston team and somehow got published in the NY times, etc which established false credibility for her to pitch a story to boston magazine. Editorial disguised as investigative journalism. Bullshit :-)”
When reached for comment, Grant said she is not a sex worker activist, and was reporting a story on Demand Abolition in Boston, not harassing anyone. As for the piece published in the New York Times, it was an editorial--so an editorial disguised as nothing.
“I am a senior reporter at In Justice Today, a criminal justice news organization,” Gira wrote by e-mail. “I have been a journalist for more than a decade, and my reporting has been recognized in national and international media, as well as by academic institutions like Duke, Harvard, and Yale.”
Grant continued: “What this organization's staffer mischaracterizes as harassment is reporting. I’m disappointed, but I am not surprised, that this organization would demonize a journalist like this for doing her job.”
I was surprised to learn, however, that people I interviewed for a 2015 story about King County’s sex buyer awareness program conferred with Demand Abolition’s executive director before they spoke to me.
Beiser, the Seattle Against Slavery director, forwarded an e-mail from me requesting an interview with him in January 2015 to Demand Abolition’s core team. “What do people think about Seattle Against Slavery giving this interview?” Beiser asked.
Cranmer forwarded the request to Richey with advice, mentioning a previous story I had written about the "buyer beware" program: “The reporter from the rather cranky story on our town hall has requested an interview with one of our team members, Robert of SAS. Does Robert take this meeting? We think yes.”
In 2016, I also published a critique of a pro-end demand editorial from the Seattle Times, noting that the research it used to formulate an opinion was flawed. In response, Demand Abolition sent out an e-mail newsletter urging supporters to “counteract The Stranger’s message” by writing to my editors and tweeting support to the Seattle Times.
It’s extremely rare for judges to disqualify prosecuting attorneys for conflicts of interest. But at the end of Monday’s hearing, Judge Chun asked both parties to submit briefs on why he should or shouldn’t conduct a fact-finding hearing on King County’s relationship with Demand Abolition.
According to King County, in order to disqualify the prosecutors, Dixon and the other lawyers must prove that prosecutors’ are “materially limited” by its responsibilities to Demand Abolition in representing the public interest.
So, Chun posed a hypothetical to Dixon and his team.
“Let’s say Hypothetical A: Demand Abolition comes to the prosecutor’s office, and prosecutor isn’t even thinking about going after demand, and Demand Abolition says, ‘Hey, we will give you this money if you guys start prosecuting these crimes that we think this is how this social problem should be attacked,’” Chun said. “And the prosecutor says, okay, they take the money, and they prosecute.”
The judge continued: “In Hypothetial B, the prosecutor’s office is already focused on demand and is thinking, ‘Maybe it would be nice to partner with some organization to attack that demand.’ They then find Demand Abolition, the two come to some sort of an agreement, money is exchanged, and the prosecutor goes ahead and prosecutes cases they’ve always wanted to prosecute anyway, but maybe they didn’t have the resources to do it before. Maybe they did.”
“Are those two situations different?” Chun asked.
According to lawyers for the men charged with promoting prostitution, it isn’t different. But county prosecutors say Demand Abolition’s money only matters if it prevented the county from representing the public’s interest.
“We have laws that limit the money legislators can take. There’s limits, there are disclosure requirements,” Dixon countered in court. “But apparently for the prosecutor's office, they can take any sum, and all that we can do is we can try to prove, ‘Wait a minute, most of the public doesn't agree with this position.’”
Demand Abolition claims they represent the public interest. Local sex workers say they're part of the public that the prosecutor's office is supposed to represent. Soon, Judge Chun will decide.