Senate to Hold Historic Contempt Vote Against - First Time in More than 20 Years

March 16, 2016 | Press Releases

Portman-McCaskill Investigation Into Online Sex Trafficking Will Continue 

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) announced that the U.S. Senate will hold a historic contempt vote tomorrow, March 17, to enforce a subpoena they issued to the online marketplace as part of their bipartisan investigation of online sex trafficking.  As Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Portman and McCaskill issued a subpoena to for documents about the company’s business practices, particularly how it edits advertisements and screens advertisements for warning signs of sex trafficking.  Because Backpage has refused to comply with that subpoena, Portman and McCaskill advanced a civil contempt resolution to go to federal court to force the company to turn over the withheld documents.  The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously adopted the contempt resolution on February 10.  If adopted by the full Senate as expected, this will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Senate has authorized contempt proceedings.

“We launched this bipartisan investigation over 10 months ago to tackle the growing problem of sex trafficking on the Internet.  We have given every opportunity to comply with a lawful subpoena, but they have continued to stonewall,” said Portman and McCaskill in a joint statement.  “’s ongoing obstruction of this investigation will not be tolerated.  Our goal is to uncover how sex traffickers get away with selling countless victims through online black markets, so that Congress can devise legislation to more effectively combat this heart-breaking crime.  That’s why we have asked the full Senate to authorize a contempt action against Backpage and compel its cooperation with our subpoena.” 

With estimated annual revenues of more than $150 million, Backpage is a market leader in commercial-sex advertising and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including trafficking of children.  In a bipartisan staff report issued two months ago, the Subcommittee revealed evidence that Backpage has had a practice of editing advertisements before they are posted by deleting certain words and phrases, which likely served to conceal illegality.  The subpoena seeks more information about that practice, but Backpage has refused to turn over documents.

Tomorrow’s vote will be historic.  The last time the Senate voted to authorize contempt was in December 1995 in an action against William Kennedy as part of the Whitewater investigation.  No action was filed in court, however, because the witness produced documents after the resolution was passed.

Additional information about tomorrow’s vote can be found below:

What:             Debate and Vote On Contempt Resolution Re:

Where:           Senate Floor

When:            Debate begins Thursday, March 17 at 12:45PM; vote scheduled 1:45PM

Background documents:

The Subcommittee’s November 19 bipartisan report concerning is here.

A link to the Subcommittee’s November 19 hearing concerning online sex trafficking is here.