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The Federal Travel Act and the Rentboy.com Raid

Little-known regulation lets the federal government step in to enforce state laws.

Do people still buy sexy calendars? Wait, do people still buy calendars?RentboyIn my anger over the federal raid of escort site Rentboy.com's New York City offices yesterday, I glossed over the justification for federal involvement. Blame it on a growing desensitization as federal officials repeatedly get involved in matters that have nothing to do with them, from going after medical marijuana dispensary operators in states that have legalized medical pot, to dragging in unnecessary hate crime enhancements just so that they can get their names on state-level cases, to charging a fired media outlet employee with hacking for giving his old password to a member of Anonymous.

But there is some definite confusion out there about how exactly the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice could possibly be arresting and charging seven people with violating New York state's prostitution laws, so let's clear that up. The seven defendants are charged with conspiring to violate the federal Travel Act. First passed in 1961, the Travel Act makes it a federal crime to use the mail or interstate or international travel or communications for the purposes of engaging in certain illegal acts or for distributing the proceeds of certain illegal acts. The list of illegal acts covered by the law includes crimes like gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, extortion, bribery, and arson. This is not a complete list.

The important detail here is that these illegal acts don't have to be federal crimes to be covered by the Travel Act. They can be violations of the laws of the state where the crime took place. That's what is happening here. Rentboy.com allegedly violated New York's laws against prostitution, but the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York is arguing that Rentboy.com facilitated and promoted prostitution crimes across state and international borders. For that they could face up to $250,000 fines and five years in prison each (though this is the maximum penalty and none of them are likely to face sentences this harsh).

The Travel Act had not been seeing much use, but the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama has dusted it off and is now using it as a way to go after private business leaders accused of bribing foreign officials. The Travel Act allows the DOJ to get around gaps in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Magazine Inside Counsel explains:

This exceptionally broad language allows federal prosecutors to reach criminal acts committed abroad that would not otherwise violate federal law. For instance, federal law doesn't prohibit commercial bribery—bribery between private parties that does not involve a government official. However, many state laws criminalize commercial bribery. Therefore, if bribery is committed abroad using any cross-border transmissions, such as mail, Skype or wire transfers, such that the crime has some significant contact with the U.S., the DOJ can snag the perpetrator under the wide umbrella of the Travel Act.

"The Travel Act allows the DOJ to federalize a state commercial bribery statute if the transaction touches any state with a commercial bribery statute," [Attorney H.L.] Rogers says. "The DOJ is looking to see if there is any aspect of the crime that involves crossing state lines, even if it has nothing to do with any government official."

Likewise, the DOJ has made foreign bribery of government officials an enforcement priority for years. But the FCPA doesn't reach all parties to a bribe. The FCPA targets only the payor, not the bribe's recipient. Once again, the Travel Act, as in the Direct Access Partners case, can step in to fill that gap.

That explains how the DOJ and DHS could go after Rentboy.com, but not really why. Inside Counsel notes that the prosecution both gives the DOJ leverage to force pleas and settlements (recall the feds are asking to seize $1.4 million from Rentboy), and it's easier to get jury convictions:

When Travel Act charges are tacked onto FCPA, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or money laundering charges, the defendants face increased risks of financial penalties and jail time. This puts the DOJ in a stronger position for negotiating favorable settlements.

"Adding additional theories gives prosecutors an alternative for plea bargaining," says Adam Hoffinger, a partner at Morrison Foerster. "Charges under the Travel Act also provide an alternative for jurors—in some cases it may be easier for a jury to find that this statute was violated than the FCPA. The DOJ is willing to go as far and wide as possible and use all of the statutes and laws available to it to go after FCPA cases."

This isn't a FCPA case though, so it's not entirely clear if we can expect the same.

Photo Credit: Rentboy

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  • ||

    To answer your alt-text question: yes, but only in Europe.

    Dieux du Stade

    Orthodox Calendar

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I'm not waiting a whole month for something fresh to jerk off to, I'll tell you that much right now.

  • ||

    Actually, I think I have the 2011 Rentboy calendar someplace. A friend needed it stored while his family was staying with him or something and never claimed it.

    Something something Arpad Miklos something something

  • Almanian - Trump's Woodchipper||

    something something pics or didn't happen something NTTAWWT something

  • Not a Libertarian||

    its sad about this Miklos guy

  • Ivan Pike||

    Not the Orthodox calendar I was expecting.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This is not a complete list.

    As with most federal law, listing permitted things would be shorter.

  • Almanian - Trump's Woodchipper||

    That which is not permitted is prohibited. That which is mandatory may or may not be listed. Citizens are expected to understand that "ignorance of the law is no excuse".

  • Jerryskids||

    It's a federal crime to commit a state crime.

  • John||

    The Feds have going after straight prostitution for decades. Thousands of straights have sen their lives ruined thanks to these idiotic laws. This seems to be a new wrinkle legally but I am sure other Feds will be following this lead soon enough going after straight hookers and their customers. I am not sure what to say to this other tan to tell the gays welcome to the party.

    What made these people think they could run a gay hooker message board so openly and not eventually end up in federal prison? Did they miss what happened to the Silk Road guy? Did they think their homo privileges would get them out of it? It sucks but hardly unexpected.

  • ||

    welcome to the party

    Umm, you realize we've been here for decades, right John? I like that you've convinced yourself that gays were somehow magically NOT prosecuted for crimes that straight people have, but it's provably false. Shit, the town I lived in did a sting operation a few years ago and posted everyone's photo, full name, date of birth and residence in all of the papers. You're continued assertion that this is somehow new for gay men is magical thinking.

  • John||

    I don't think it is. But Scott seems to otherwise why is this news? And was that sting about hookers or public hook ups? I think prostitution should be legal. Hooking up in a park or a public bathroom not so much. You want to fuck be it gay or straight do it in a hotel room or at home not in public. I have no sympathy for anyone who gets nailed crusing for blowjobs in a park. Do that you are a fucking deviant who deserves whatever you get.

  • Agammamon||

    And do you understand that these dudes were cruising for a bruising in the local park's public toilet BECAUSE THE LOCAL POLICE AND POLITICIANS MADE IT EFFECTIVELY IMPOSSIBLE TO OPENLY CRUISE AT A BAR OR OTHER VENUE?

    Prohibition dude. The 'negative effects' of gay promiscuity are *greatly* amplified by prohibition, same as for prostitution or drug use.

  • ||

    And do you understand that these dudes were cruising for a bruising in the local park's public toilet BECAUSE THE LOCAL POLICE AND POLITICIANS MADE IT EFFECTIVELY IMPOSSIBLE TO OPENLY CRUISE AT A BAR OR OTHER VENUE?

    By "local" you mean Manhattan Beach itself? Los Angeles County? Or the State of California?

    I refuse to believe that there isn't a place to cruise for blowjobs in Los Angeles County and if the people of Manhattan Beach are shelling out to get Johns out of their public places, as long as they aren't invading people's homes or tying them to cinder blocks and chucking them in the ocean, I don't know that it's much of my business. I could imagine not wanting my local beach or other public space to carry the same/similar notoriety.

  • ||

    Establishments in the greater LA Basin aggressively police conduct in their bars for fear of losing their liquor license (a number of bars have lost their liquor licenses and been effectively shut down in LA and Riverside Counties). I'm not sure if it's county-wide and enforced by the several surrounding counties or statewide and SF just flouts the laws (they do not aggressively police sexual behavior in private spaces, but also do not seem to get shut down).

  • ||

    why is this news?

    I think you already answered your own question, John

    "This seems to be a new wrinkle legally"

    And you've stated more than once that you DO think it is. An example from yesterday

    John|8.25.15 @ 9:17PM

    I work at DHS. They have been going after straight hookers under the guise of stopping human trafficking for years. Yeah it is bullshit. But it is no worse bullshit because they for once went after gays.
  • John||

    This is new for DHS. I am personally very familiar with DHS efforts in the area of Prostitution and I have never heard of them going after gays. This is both a new legal wrinkle and the first time I have seen them treating gay prostitution equally with straight prostitution. In that sense I guess it is DHS getting with the times and treating guys equally under the law. Everything I am familiar with, the blue campaign and such is targeted at straights. That really is not giving gays equal protection from the "scorge of prostitution". You do want the Feds to treat gays equally don't you?

    The Feds suck and prostitution laws are wrong. I am not really sure why that is somehow more true when applied to gays.

  • ||

    Right. But this story is newsworthy because there is federal involvement with no claim of trafficking AND they're dusting off a new justification for the targeting.

    Law enforcement has not at all been shy about going after gays whether it be aggressive raids on gay bars, trying to enforce overturned sodomy laws, or going after escorts on the local level. As far as I can tell, and from what you've confirmed, DHS justifies its involvement with anti-prostitution work on sexist grounds, namely that women can be trafficked while it assumes that men cannot.

  • John||

    Show me a single instance in the last 20 years where the Feds raided a gay bar. I have never heard of one. If there is , show me.

    As far as this being a new expansion of the law, yes that is wrong. But everyone not just the gay community should worry about that. The fact that this was a gay site is not relevant. Yet Scott seems outraged that it was and calls on the gay community to be angry Okay would he be just as angry if it were a staight site? Maybe. Would the gay community and its activists care? Hell no. Given that, why should anyone who is not gay worry until this gets applied more broadly? I care about the gay community just as much as they care about me, however much that is.

  • ||

    I didn't say Federal law enforcement John.

    Also, make a few substitutions in what you just said to make "the law" public accommodations and "gay community" "anti-gay-marriage bakers". It'll be a fun exercise.

    Given that, why should anyone who is not an anti-gay-marriage baker worry until this gets applied more broadly? I care about the anti-gay-marriage baker community just as much as they care about me, however much that is.

  • AFSlade||

    John - I guess you don't include the military law enforcement going after gay folks for decades?

  • JW||

    The Feds suck and prostitution laws are wrong. I am not really sure why that is somehow more true when applied to gays.

    John continue to experience confusion when libertarians at a libertarian web site express outrage at governmental overreach or abuse of basic rights.

    News at 11.

  • John||

    Yes that a libertarian website would practice identity politics and pretend that the identity group affected matters is puzzling yes.

  • JW||

    Yet, you're the only one who is puzzled. Funny that.

  • straffinrun||

    John said gays weren't prosecuted for that? Not in this post.

  • ||

    Context: John has been on a kick for months that gays are legally sarcosanct and that only straight men are now victimized by law. He's been actively retconning the past 30 years of history since Obergefell.

    John|8.25.15 @ 8:20PM

    Human trafficking. It is a joke. The only good thing is that since this is finally effecting the sacred homos the right people might start to care. As long as they just go after low status straights, nothing will change.
  • John||

    At the federal level I have not seen them going after gay prostitution before. Have you? If so what is special about this case that makes it worthy of special outrage? If not, then my point stands.

  • ||

    See above.

  • Los Doyers||

    What, did you pay Larry $20 for a quick blowjob only to be given a shitty one with too much stiff jaw? I know that feel, bro. Your beef is well grounded.

  • John||

    I only go to known purveyors for my blowjobs. You want to go to some street twink for your blowjobs to save a bit of cash, you get what you pay for. My male hookers come highly recommended and at a more than fair price. I only pay for quality.

  • Sam Grove||

    It seems the government is keen to turn more citizens toward a more libertarian outlook.

  • Antilles||

    More likely, they'll say that we need MORE government to control our current Big Government.

  • Agammamon||

    If only we had a department of Homeland Security Security to watch over the Department of Homeland Security!

  • In League with the Dark Ones||

    The Travel Act had not been seeing much use, but the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama has dusted it off and is now using it as a way to go after private business leaders accused of bribing foreign officials.

    This is why the US needs a desuetude statute.

  • Agammamon||

    We that and an automatic 5 year sunset provision on *all* federal laws.

  • AFSlade||

    Yahtzee. This right here. Everything - every law. Make every law presumedly done from a given start date unless specifically voted on. See how quickly the bullshit legislation goes away and then we get truly prioritized lawmaking for only the essentials. Would also be a procedural/mechanical check on how much new legislation could get passed.

  • Jerryskids||

    I glossed over the justification for federal involvement

    As I recall, you asked how the hell this was a federal issue at all. It's nice that you've gone to all this trouble of explicating the specific rationale in this specific case, but the feds can make a case for making a federal case out of literally anything. If it weren't TSA and the travel act it could be the Labor Department and wage and hour regulations, OSHA and workplace safety, the FBI and the copyright act, the FCC and the use of the public airwaves, the FDA and the safety of anything you're putting into your body, the State Department and foreign affairs...

    Let's play a game and try to name a federal agency that couldn't come up with a rationale for being involved in going after an online prostitution operation.

  • sarcasmic||

    EPA?

  • Pan Zagloba||

    Server farm using too much electricity.

  • sarcasmic||

    HUD?

  • Jerryskids||

    Everybody involved lives in a house of some sort and half of them live in urban areas - prostitution affects the quality of life in urban areas - people spending money on prostitutes aren't spending the money on home loans - lots of tangential relationships there.

    The only federal agency I could easily imagine struggling to come up with a rationale for going after an online prostitution operation would be the theoretical Federal Agency For The Regulation Of Online Prostitution Operations.

  • grrizzly||

    TSA?

  • Jerryskids||

    How can you feel safe on a plane or a train or a bus knowing that the guy sitting next to you might be travelling for the purpose of engaging a prostitute? Aren't you afraid to travel knowing the person sitting next to you could well be an international sex trafficker?

  • Je suis Woodchipper||

    BATFE?

  • Jerryskids||

    The alcohol nexus is way too easy - I know I like to have a few stiff ones before I have a few stiff ones.

  • Paul.||

    USDA?

  • Jerryskids||

    "Beefcake" has the word "beef" right in it!

  • ||

    I just want to point out that I'm super jealous of that rentboy's abs.

  • JW||

    There is a simple solution, join the Fabulous Side of The Force.

    Use your homo feelings, boy. Let the gay flow through you!

  • ||

    The Anita Bryant Memorial Homo Recruitment Center is here to help Warty in any way we can.

  • Not a Libertarian||

    Let the gay flow through you!

    Phasing!?!

  • Paul.||

    I just want to point out that I'm super jealous of that rentboy's abs.

    All straight men are.

  • Judge Forrest's Clitdong||

    Those perfectly sculpted buns are divine too. No homo.

  • Paul.||

    Can we just conclude that the proprietors of Rentboy.com committed four felonies a day?

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    You just can't keep a good Mann (Act) down.

  • JesseV||

    Bizarre case! One question is bugging me.

    I don't understand why the RENTBOY CEO isn't using the same defense the BACKPAGE guys have been using, for years, to win their cases in court.
    Apparently, the Communications Decency Act has a section (230) specifically shielding website operators from prosecution related to crimes committed by the site's third-party users.
    Basically, it's a section of the CDA that reminds politicians, er, prosecutors, that the First Amendment supersedes their headline-grabbing shock-tactics.
    There's even a "Good Samaritan" clause in section 230 which additionally protects publishers from prosecution if they fail to "correct" classified ads placed by those who may have nefarious intent.
    I'm not a lawyer, so I hope this question makes sense!
    Thanks!

  • Travel Center||

    I'm not waiting a whole month for something fresh to jerk off to, I'll tell you that much right now.

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