By Steve Horn
Investigative articles published on March 24 by the Seattle-based alt-weekly The Stranger and the online publication The Intercept reveal that prosecutors’ offices in King County, Washington and nationwide have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in private grant money which legal critics and defense attorneys have argued has led to an approach to criminalize purchasers of sex workers.
The money, given in the form of a series of annual non-profit grants from the group Demand Abolition, is at the center of an ongoing criminal court case in King County’s Superior Court (State of Washington v. Charles T. Peters, No. 16-C-00154-4-SEA). In that case, Judge John Chun will soon decide if the receipt of that money played an undue influence in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office decision to press charges against 13 individuals who purchased sex workers in the county. King County prosecutors handed charges those 13 for “promoting prostitution in the second degree,” a Class C felony. The Stranger reporter Sydney Brownstone pointed out that these charges had typically been used against pimps in the state, not purchasers of sex workers.
Money with Strings Attached
King County and other locales nationwide have not only received hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past several years from Demand Abolition, but that money has come with strings attached, both The Stranger and The Intercept have revealed.
For example, under the terms of the grant, prosecutors’ offices such as the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office must send officials to annual planning meetings and sit in on weekly conference calls with Demand Abolition staffers and public relations consultants to plan both prosecutorial strategies and also messaging strategies. As part of the King County prosecutor’s office deliverables for receiving the grants from Demand Abolition, King County was also asked to meet a quota of arrests and prosecutions for purchasers of sex work. According to its 2014 initial grant proposal application obtained by The Stranger, King County said its goal was to boost “the number of arrests and prosecutions of sex buyers by 50 percent,” while Demand Abolition had “asked that applicants reduce ‘demand’ for sex by 20 percent.”
As part of its messaging efforts, a public relations strategist for Demand Abolition named Sydney Asbury also pushed for King County to call the prosecutorial efforts “anti-trafficking” work in its press outreach, even though no trafficking charges were ever brought due to lack of evidence of it having taken place.
“I am worried that removing all references to sex trafficking will hurt our ability to grab reporters’ attention,” Asbury wrote in a 2015 email to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office obtained by both The Intercept and The Stranger. "In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of national attention on sex trafficking."
Demand Abolition, which has spearheaded these efforts, is a non-profit organization outgrowth of the 501(c)(3) foundation Hunt Alternatives. That foundation got off the ground with endowment money from Swanee Hunt, the former US ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton and the daughter of oil tycoon Ray Hunt, founder of the company Hunt Oil. The group’s work, while coming under legal fire in King County, has funded prosecutors’ offices nationwide in places such as Chicago and Cook County, Denver, Oakland, Houston, Dallas and Boston, according to The Intercept.
According to its website, Demand Abolition takes a demand-side approach to stopping sex trafficking, also coming out against the legalization of sex work. In a statement provided to The Stranger, the group defended the work it has done in the issue area.
“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,” stated Demand Abolition. “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.”
“Inflames the Jury Pool”
Meanwhile, the legal defense team for one of the sex buyers, Charles Peters, says the prosecutions in King County would have never taken place to begin with had it not been for the grant money given by Demand Abolition. Peters’ legal team obtained over 100,000 documents during the discovery process that they believe proves that is the case.
“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,” James Dixon, a criminal defense attorney representing Peters said at a recent court hearing. “This hasn’t been done before. That’s why they used the word ‘unprecedented.’”
Dixon is not alone in thinking his client, Peters, has a case here. Peter Joy, professor at Washington University School of Law and co-author of the 2009 book by the American Bar Association titled Do No Wrong: Ethics for Prosecutors and Defenders, also believes that the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office may have biased the jury by spinning its work as halting sex trafficking.
“It’s clearly wrong for a prosecutor to intentionally mischaracterize a legal proceeding,” Joy told The Intercept. “When they say there’s a link to sex trafficking that inflames the jury pool against people who have been arrested.”
Joy also critiqued King County for partaking in potential prosecutorial misconduct.
“Prosecutors are not supposed to be influenced or controlled in exercising their own independent judgement,” he told The Intercept. “It sounds like they’re permitting funders to affect the way they’re doing their jobs — so they’re no longer exercising independent judgement.”
Sources: https://theintercept.com, https://www.thestranger.com, https://www.demandabolition.org, http://www.dixoncannon.com/attorney-james-dixon, https://www.swaneehunt.org, State of Washington v. Charles T. Peters, No. 16-C-00154-4-SEA; Peter Joy, Do No Wrong: Ethics for Prosecutors and Defenders (2009)
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