In a sting operation two years ago, Seattle-area police infiltrated a group of men who patronized Korean-born sex workers and wrote about them for a website called The Review Board. The undercover cops recorded the group’s gatherings at local restaurants, during which the men discussed the attributes of the sex workers; “she’s as close to perfect as I think they get made,” one man was heard saying. At the culmination of the investigation, undercover police arrested the men over nachos and beer, and videotaped it.
This video footage resurfaced as part of an ABC News “Nightline” report that aired in June. The “Nightline” segment was introduced by a newscaster who talked about women trapped in the “lurid world of sex trafficking.” The report relied heavily on interviews with a senior Seattle prosecutor, Valiant Richey, who said his goal was “dismantling these networks of buyers who are creating this vociferous demand for exploited women.” Richey told “Nightline” anchor Juju Chang that he travels across the country to educate other law enforcement officials about demand-based prosecutions in the hope that they will mount similar client stings.
“We looked hard at whether we had facts or not to file trafficking and it did not meet the standard.”
There is no mention in the 10-minute “Nightline” segment of the fact that Richey’s work was handsomely supported by Demand Abolition, a nonprofit group whose stated mission is to end demand for sex work by going after buyers, or that the cost of some of his travels around the country has been defrayed by the same group. Nor is there any mention of the fact that Demand Abolition, in exchange for providing approximately $191,667 in funding to the King County prosecutor’s office over four years, asked Seattle-area law enforcement to carry out regular arrests and prosecutions of buyers with the goal of disrupting demand. As part of signed agreements for the funding, Richey and other law enforcement officials in King County were required to frame the activities of sex buyers and men involved with The Review Board as sex trafficking, according to court records and internal documents obtained through public records requests — even though there was no evidence of trafficking in these cases.
Law enforcement officials, including Richey, his boss King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, and others, gave interviews to the media about the stings. When speaking to national programs such as ABC’s “Nightline” and American Public Media, as well as local print, television, and radio outlets, the officials frequently referred to Review Board cases as sex trafficking cases. In one of those interviews, Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett told me two years ago that police had broken up “a well-organized ring promoting sex slavery.”
None of the men arrested, however, were charged with trafficking — only with promoting prostitution. At a sentencing hearing for one of the men who pled guilty, a King County prosecutor acknowledged that his office had no evidence of trafficking or forced behavior in any of these cases, according to court documents. “Trafficking requires some sort of coercive behavior, usually physical coercive behavior. And believe me, we looked hard at whether we had facts or not to file trafficking and it did not meet the standard,” prosecutor Gary Ernsdorff told the judge. He added that prosecutors could not prove that the man was guilty of promoting prostitution in the first degree, which consists of coercion or profiting from sex work. “We did not have the evidence in this case to file… Promoting 1,” Ernsdorff said, referring to the first-degree charge.
Global human rights groups like Amnesty International and World Health Organization have called for the decriminalization of adult sex work in an effort to reduce violence and discrimination against sex workers, and to cut down on the spread of sexually transmitted disease. Yet U.S. authorities are continuing to crack down — sometimes, as in the Seattle area, with the aid of nonprofit advocacy groups pressing for harsher enforcement. King County’s acceptance of funding with strings attached from an anti-prostitution advocacy group raises ethical questions about whether prosecutors’ judgement as impartial “ministers of justice” was impaired by their financial arrangement with Demand Abolition.
In an interview, Satterberg, the King County prosecuting attorney, said that the funding from Demand Abolition was only a small portion of his annual budget and did not have any effect on his prosecutorial conduct.
“If you’re suggesting that my prosecutorial discretion was for sale, I absolutely reject that,” he said.
Public records show the extent to which Demand Abolition’s funding came with strings attached.
The financial relationship between Demand Abolition and Seattle law enforcement was laid bare by public records requests, but the group’s reach extends far beyond King County. Demand Abolition has also provided millions of dollars in funding to law enforcement agencies and other organizations in local jurisdictions around the country, including Boston, Chicago (a part of Cook County, whose Sheriff’s office received $92,145 in funding from Demand Abolition between 2014 and 2016), Denver, Oakland (a part of Alameda County), Houston, and Dallas, according to tax documents. These cities conducted undercover stings of men who were attempting to buy sex. The headline of a 2017 press release from one of the sheriff’s annual stings reads, “National Sex Trafficking Sting Nets over 1,000 sex buyers and pimps/traffickers.” Yet out of 81 sex workers or “victims” recovered, only six were underage and thus considered trafficking victims according to federal law. The Cook County press release ends with a “special thank you to Demand Abolition for their continued support of this national initiative.”
Public records show the extent to which Demand Abolition’s funding came with strings attached for King County prosecutors. Richey and other Seattle-area law enforcement officials were required by grant agreements to attend regular conference calls with Demand Abolition staff and provide the nonprofit with quarterly reports on their anti-buyer campaigns. Demand Abolition went so far as to specify timelines for the prosecutors to carry out law enforcement work: According to internal emails, the group provided a plan to prosecutors stating that, during the 15th week of the campaign, King County had to organize a day of buyer stings.
As part of the arrangement, Demand Abolition played a direct hand in shaping King County prosecutors’ public relations strategy. The group pressed the prosecutors to emphasize the trafficking angle. In one instance, Richey allowed a consultant, hired by Demand Abolition, to rewrite a press release announcing the arrests of the men in the Review Board operation, according to court documents; the consultant inserted the headline, “Historic Raid dismantles national sex trafficking website.” Richey also allowed the same consultant to insert language about trafficking into an earlier King County press release, even though he and another official said they preferred the term “commercial sexual exploitation,” according to internal emails. In her email explaining why she wanted to use the term sex trafficking, the consultant, Sydney Asbury, wrote, “Removing all references to sex trafficking will hurt our ability to grab reporters’ attention.”
In January, lawyers for one of the men charged by King County with promoting prostitution in the Review Board arrests filed a motion to disqualify the prosecutors’ office from handling his case on the grounds that the financial arrangement between prosecutors and Demand Abolition, an out-of-state special interest group, created a serious conflict of interest. As the motion argues, when a prosecutor speaks publicly about a pending case, he or she “has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate,” according to both the American Bar Association and the state of Washington’s rules of professional conduct. The rules say prosecutors should refrain from making “extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.
A legal scholar interviewed by The Intercept said he thinks that by calling consensual prostitution “trafficking,” the prosecutors’ behavior doesn’t only appear to violate those rules of professional conduct, subsequently hurting the right of the accused to a fair trial. Their mischaracterization of pending criminal cases may also violate guidelines from the National District Attorneys Association, which counsel prosecutors against accepting money from nongovernmental organizations, creating the appearance of undue influence.
“It’s clearly wrong for a prosecutor to intentionally mischaracterize a legal proceeding,” said Peter Joy, the author of “Do No Wrong: Ethics for Prosecutors and Defenders” and a professor at Washington University School of Law. “When they say there’s a link to sex trafficking that inflames the jury pool against people who have been arrested.”
“Prosecutors are not supposed to be influenced or controlled in exercising their own independent judgement.”
Joy said that the prosecutors’ behavior in this case may also have violated rules of professional conduct that govern conflicts of interest. “Prosecutors are not supposed to be influenced or controlled in exercising their own independent judgement,” he said. “It sounds like they’re permitting funders to affect the way they’re doing their jobs — so they’re no longer exercising independent judgement.”
Prosecutors in a criminal case also have a responsibility to control the messages coming from other law enforcement officials they work with. They must exercise reasonable care to prevent investigators and other law enforcement personnel from making any extrajudicial statement that the prosecutor would be prohibited from making. Yet in press interviews after the arrests of the Seattle men, not only did Satterberg repeatedly use the term “sex trafficking,” but the Bellevue Police Chief and King County Sheriff’s Office also referred to “sex trafficking” in their comments.
The transgressions of these guidelines undergird the motion to disqualify. “Criminal justice is subverted when a prosecutor is unduly influenced by a private interest group,” said Jennifer Cannon-Unione, one of the lawyers who filed the motion. “The prosecutor violated his obligation to avoid unnecessary and prejudicial pretrial publicity. His repeated public conflation of this case with human trafficking has deprived my client of a fair trial.”
In its response to the motion to disqualify, the King County prosecuting attorney’s office argued that there is no conflict because Demand Abolition did not fund the prosecution of any of the Review Board cases. In a subsequent phone interview, Satterberg said that his office had begun pursuing policies that put more pressure on the buyers of commercial sex before receiving any funding from Demand Abolition.
“Based on our experience in dealing with exploited women and children, we felt that more pressure needs to be put on the demand side,” Satterberg said. “We are trying to dissuade buyers who add to that exploitation.”
In their legal brief responding to the motion to disqualify, King County prosecutors argue that the discussion of trafficking in media interviews was “appropriate in light of the public’s need to know about these review boards and brothels [and] the link between demand for illegal commercial sex and trafficking.” The brief concludes that prosecutors did not violate their rules of professional misconduct and that the defendant is not entitled to a dismissal of the charges against him.
Joy, the Washington University law professor, disagreed. “Once the prosecutors link their statements about sex trafficking to particular arrests that did not involve sex trafficking,” Joy said, “they crossed the line.”
The judge will soon hand down a ruling on the motion to disqualify.
The story of how King County prosecutors may have crossed a professional line can be traced back to the fierce determination of one woman: Texas oil heiress Swanee Hunt. The heiress — who still refers to herself as Ambassador Hunt on her personal website, owing to the four years she spent as ambassador to Austria under the Clinton administration — became convinced that the only way to end the sexual exploitation of women and underage youth was to end the demand for prostitution. Under the umbrella of her nonprofit, Hunt Alternatives, which is generously endowed with millions of dollars from Hunt herself and other smaller donors, Hunt established Demand Abolition. In 2013, Demand Abolition embarked on an ambitious plan to work with law enforcement throughout the U.S. to target and arrest the buyers of commercial sex, according to documents obtained through public records requests.
Up to this point, most law enforcement agencies in the U.S. focused on arresting sex workers themselves and occasionally pimps or traffickers, particularly those who have exploited underage youth. They rarely went after the buyers of sex, and when such men were arrested, they were usually slapped with a misdemeanor and a fine. According to research and FBI reports, most of the trafficking victims in the U.S. are teenagers who have run away from homes where they were being abused or neglected. (According to federal law, anyone under the age of 18 is automatically considered a trafficking victim.) In some cases, law enforcement in large urban areas would work with websites that allowed sex workers to advertise their services in order to identify traffickers who were advertising underage youth and target them.
A widely accepted body of research indicates that the majority of adult sex workers in the United States are selling sex by choice.
A widely accepted body of research indicates that the majority of adult sex workers in the U.S. are selling sex by choice, largely for economic reasons. Groups that oppose sex work, however, disagree. As Melody Hood, a spokesperson for Demand Abolition said in a written statement to The Intercept, “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.”
In 2014, Hunt Alternatives gave the King County prosecutors’ office $50,000. In order to receive its share of the funding, the King County prosecutors signed a written agreement stating that Val Richey, as co-coordinator of the project, would work closely with Demand Abolition on setting up targets and tactics to reduce buyer demand, collect data, and attend regular conference calls with Demand Abolition staff and law enforcement from other cities that receive similar funding.
Meanwhile, Hunt Alternatives tapped local NGOs as part of its campaign. In 2014, Hunt also gave $76,964 to Organization for Prostitution Survivors, a Seattle group that provided services to former sex workers. Another Seattle group, Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, which works with companies — like hotels — that are drawn into sex work, received a total of $38,952 in funding from Demand Abolition over a few years, according to tax documents. In 2014, Hunt’s group also gave $74,000 to Children at Risk, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement in Dallas and Houston and is dedicated to combatting the trafficking of children.
The same year, Hunt Alternatives also gave $62,000 to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, $118,235 to Denver law enforcement authorities, and $52,000 to Alameda County.
The city of San Francisco, which had initially been approached by Demand Abolition, dropped out before receiving funding because, as one public employee put it, city officials couldn’t accept the organization’s tenet that sex work is inherently exploitative. San Francisco officials had taken pains to include sex worker groups in their dialogue about how to curb the trafficking of minors and make sex work safer. These advocates “clued us into” the reality of sex work, said Minouche Kandel, the women’s policy director for the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women.
“It’s problematic to call all efforts to go after people purchasing sex ‘anti-trafficking’ because not all sex workers are trafficked,” says Kandel, who was one of the officials involved in the initial discussions with Demand Abolition. “Our decision to not sign on [with Demand Abolition] was informed by the work we were doing with sex worker groups.”
Seattle-area sex workers also tried to work with King County prosecutors and Seattle police to help prevent true cases of trafficking and identify violent predators. After one meeting, however, the prosecutors refused to meet with the local chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. “They refused to meet with us further because it flies in the face of their end-demand agenda,” said Savannah Sly, then-president of Sex Workers Outreach Project and a Seattle-based sex worker, in an interview after the Review Board arrests; she asked to be identified by her stage name, since stating her real name puts her at risk of arrest.
The prosecutors were required to sign a written statement that they shared Demand Abolition’s belief that “the illegal commercial sex industry is inherently harmful.”
In October 2014, Demand Abolition announced the new name for its national initiative: CEASE, which stood for Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation. Eventually, according to a Demand Abolition spokesperson, 12 cities would become involved in CEASE, including Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Portland, and Atlanta. The cities agreed to send law enforcement representatives to a conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to discuss the new initiative, according to internal emails.
The following year, Hunt Alternatives gave King County another $41,667. According to internal documents, the prosecutors were required to sign a written statement saying they shared Demand Abolition’s belief that “the illegal commercial sex industry is inherently harmful” and would develop specific strategies for reducing buyer demand in the Seattle area by 20 percent in the next two years. King County’s strategy included increasing the penalties for those buying sex workers’ services and consistent collaboration with law enforcement.
As co-coordinator of the partnership between King County prosecutors and Demand Abolition, Val Richey created a strategy for continuous communication with the media in accordance with Demand Abolition’s mission, internal documents obtained by public records requests revealed. In early 2015, Demand Abolition asked Richey to travel to Phoenix and give a talk to other law enforcement officials about how localities could increase fees and fines for buyers as a way of reducing demand.
In early January 2016, Seattle-area law enforcement, including Bellevue police and the King County Sheriff’s Office, launched a raid on several brothels and arrested 11 men caught in the undercover sting of The Review Board. Prosecutors leveled a number of unprecedented felony charges against the men, including promoting prostitution in the second degree, which doesn’t involve coercion or force. Most of the men took the plea deal. But several of those charged, including the defendant whose lawyer filed the motion to disqualify, are fighting it out in court.
With the charges brought forth, the CEASE network newsletter that month sounded triumphant. “Looks like guys in the tech world hare having a bad day,” the newsletter read. “As part of The Review Board takedown, police in King County have arrested a director of Microsoft and a former director at Amazon. Well done!”
Hunt Alternatives kept the money coming. In 2016, the group awarded $638,000 in grants to the 11 cities in the CEASE network, including an additional $50,000 to the King County prosecutor’s office, according to tax documents and a Demand Abolition spokesperson. In 2017, Demand Abolition gave approximately $425,000 in grants to its partners in CEASE, including slightly less than $50,000 to King County. (The organization, blaming “reduced income,” decreased its CEASE grants by a third in 2017 and ended the program altogether in 2018, said Hood, the spokesperson for Demand Abolition.)
King County prosecutors again agreed to meet particular prosecutorial goals in exchange for the funding.
King County prosecutors again agreed to meet particular prosecutorial goals in exchange for funding. They signed a written agreement promising to achieve a total of 14,800 “direct buyer disruptions” in 2016 and implement a communication strategy to “proactively… leverage media channels to help shift cultural norms” about commercial sex.
Val Richey played a key part in this public relations campaign, providing inside information about Review Board arrests to several journalists who had been selected by Demand Abolition for their sympathetic views toward its mission. According to internal emails, Richey ensured that ABC’s “Nightline” and a radio producer with American Public Media received audio and video recordings of undercover police meetings with members of The Review Board. Richey also accommodated requests to introduce the media producers, by email, to the undercover detectives themselves. Internal email show that he even tried to help the media outlets get mugshots of the defendants in the Review Board case. (In accordance with Washington state statute, the records department refused to release the mugshots.)
Richey, meanwhile, became more enmeshed in Demand Abolition’s network. While prosecuting the Review Board cases, Richey served on the advisory board of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, the group that had received substantial funding from Demand Abolition.
A day after the ABC “Nightline” episode aired on June 27, 2017, Richey emailed members of World Without Exploitation, an advocacy group with close ties to Demand Abolition, saying, “It would be really great if we could get some positive input to ABC about the story from Worldwe members because I’m sure ABC is already starting to get trolled by the pro-prostitution folks.”
His email was sent to a listserv identified as “off the record and confidential,” but was released in response to a public records request because it came from Richey’s work email. As one of the emails in the string noted, Richey himself was a member of World Without Exploitation.