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AG Going Back After Backpage.com

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Aug. 31, 2011:

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper and 45 other attorneys general are urging Backpage.com to do more to stop online classified ads promoting human sex trafficking, particularly those that could involve minors.

In a letter to the online classified site’s lawyers, the attorneys general said that Backpage.com claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity. Yet the chief legal officers of several states have found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.

The letter stated the hub for illegal sex ads is a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors and points to more than 50 cases, in 22 states over three years, involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through Backpage.com. “These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist,” the attorneys general wrote. They also reminded Backpage.com of a 2010 request from nearly two dozen attorneys general asking that the adult services site be taken down.

Tennessee has had numerous instances of suspected human sex trafficking with arrests from one end of the state to the other in the past few years. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation noted in a joint study with Vanderbilt’s Center for Community Studies mandated by the General Assembly that, “Human trafficking and sex slavery in Tennessee is more common than previously believed possible.” The May 2011 study observed that Tennessee is especially attractive to traffickers because of its geographic location and proximity to major Interstates and larger cities.

“We look forward to continuing to collaborate with attorneys general across the country as well as with the TBI and local law enforcement to raise awareness and fight this menace,” Tennessee Attorney General Cooper said. General Cooper has supported previous efforts to stop human trafficking by teaming with others last year to pressure Craigslist and Backpage.com to take down their adult services sections that advertised sex for sale by adults and minors.

“The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site,” the attorneys general said in their letter, “is to take down adult services advertisements altogether and take aggressive steps to be sure such posts don’t appear elsewhere on the site.”

This year, the Tennessee General Assembly strengthened laws against human trafficking making Tennessee one of six states with a law that provides immunity from prosecution of minors for prostitution. “The law recognizes that children are not capable, legally or otherwise, to consent in these cases,” General Cooper said, “and that they are the real victims of these crimes.”

Other new statutory provisions enhance the penalties for patronizing prostitution and promoting prostitution of minors or persons who have an intellectual disability, provide that real and personal property used in commission of human trafficking offenses is subject to judicial forfeiture seizure, and require certain establishments to post a sign with information regarding the national human trafficking resource center hotline.

General Cooper pointed out that the National Association of Attorneys General 2011-12 presidential initiative is focused on efforts among his colleagues to combat human trafficking.

While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in today’s letter noted they believe that “Backpage.com sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.

The letter asks Backpage.com to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity. The attorneys general also ask the company to cooperate by describing in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes “illegal activity,” and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category. Additionally, they ask how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since September 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, how many were rejected, and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services.

In 2008, 42 attorneys general reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like human trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its “erotic services” section altogether in May 2009. Following continued allegations of rampant prostitution advertisements and growing public frustration, in August 2010, state attorneys general called upon Craigslist to remove its “adult services” section, which it promptly did. This is the second time the attorneys general have asked Backpage.com to follow the example of Craigslist by removing its “adult” section.

In Tennessee, anyone who has information regarding possible illegal abuses of the website should contact local law enforcement. Anyone who has information about a possible crime can also call the TBI Hotline at 1-800-TBI-FIND.

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Business and Economy Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Labor Complaint Against Boeing Opposed by Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam is among 16 Republican governors to sign a letter to the National Labor Relations Board asking it to dismiss its complaint against aircraft maker Boeing, which plans to operate a plant in South Carolina.

Like Tennessee, South Carolina is a right-to-work state. The NLRB claims Boeing chose to establish an assembly plant in North Charleston, S.C., as retaliation for past labor problems the company has experienced in the state of Washington.

The NLRB formally issued a complaint against Boeing in April.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina has written to Lafe Solomon, acting general counsel of the NLRB, taking issue with the agency’s action. The letter was dated June 16, and Haslam is among the signers.

The letter says that although South Carolina is a right-to-work state and Washington isn’t, the aircraft maker continues to invest and create jobs in both states regardless of their different policies on labor. The letter begins by saying the best announcement a governor can make during the recovery from recession is one about new jobs.

“When a company chooses to come to a state, it does so because the state has a low cost of doing business, a trained workforce and a favorable regulatory climate,” the letter said. “If the company chooses to locate in a right-to-work state, that is an added bonus.”

Haslam has repeatedly listed the fact that Tennessee is a right-to-work state as being among the state’s top selling points in attracting new jobs. Haslam has said his top priority is to make Tennessee the No. 1 state in the Southeast for jobs.

The letter initiated by Haley says the NLRB has “overstepped its mandate” to protect workers and has instead chosen to protect only “the interests of organized labor.”

“This undermines the principles of free market capitalism upon which this nation is built,” the letter said. “It is clear that if the NLRB can charge Boeing and punish South Carolina, then it can do so to other companies and other states.”

The letter further states, “When we, as governors, are fighting to improve the economic interests of our states, the federal government should not stand in our way. While governors are trying to break the ties that bind free enterprises from doing business, the federal government should not tell Boeing where it can build airplanes.”

A hearing on the charge opened in Seattle on June 14 before an administrative judge.

On April 28, eight state attorneys general wrote to Solomon, calling on him to withdraw the complaint. Earlier this month, 16 attorneys general filed an amicus brief opposing the NLRB’s action. Tennessee’s attorney general, Bob Cooper, has not been among those signing onto the opposition.

Boeing selected Charleston in 2009 for an assembly line for the company’s 787 Dreamliner.

Tennessee recently found itself in a controversial jobs issue similar to one in South Carolina. Tennessee has struck a deal with Amazon.com to build two distribution centers, with the agreement that Amazon will not have to collect sales taxes in Tennessee on its transactions. The decision was made by former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration, and Haslam has agreed to abide by the agreement. South Carolina lawmakers balked at a similar arrangement with Amazon on collecting taxes, before reversing their decision after Amazon threatened to pull out of the state.

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Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

Judiciary Committee Passes Elect-the-AG Amendment

The Senate moved closer to changing the state Constitution by calling for the popular election of the attorney general in a Senate Judiciary Committee vote Tuesday.

The committee voted 5-4, basically along party lines, although one Republican, Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville, voted against the measure. Overbey has also voted against such a move in the past.

The resolution moves to the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee.

The resolution passed in the Senate last year but failed in the House. Its prospects of advancement are seen as heightened by the makeup of the current Legislature, where Republicans advocating the move — or something similar — hold a substantial majority.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, sponsored the resolution, which would make the attorney general the only other state officeholder other than governor to be elected statewide.

Beavers’ contention is that the attorney general is currently appointed in a process that is “twice removed” from the will of the people.

The state’s attorney general is appointed by the state Supreme Court. But the impact of the controversial Tennessee Plan, where appellate judges are chosen by the governor from a nominating commission, has altered the debate on the attorney general.

Critics of the current system insist the Tennessee Plan, which subjects Supreme Court judges to retention elections, means the Supreme Court is not duly elected. Merits of the Tennessee Plan itself are also at issue in the current Legislature.

Beavers believes chances for success on the attorney general resolution are good.

“I have confidence that it will pass again in the Senate and a lot of confidence it will pass the House this time,” Beavers said after Tuesday’s vote.

Changing the Constitution is a long process. In order to be approved, both the current Legislature and the next Legislature must pass the measure — by simple majority in the current General Assembly and by a two-thirds vote in the next one. Only then can the issue be put to voters in a referendum in the same year as the next gubernatorial election. So it would be 2014 before the voters could decide.

Some of the enthusiasm for a change appears to lie in the fact Tennessee’s current attorney general, Robert Cooper, has not followed the wishes of Republicans in the Legislature on requests like challenging the federal health care act and for not filing a friend of the court brief on behalf of Tennessee in support of Arizona on immigration law.

Beavers said Tuesday she has heard from Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark that the court does not take a position on the resolution.

Overbey said he believes he is upholding conservative values by opposing the resolution.

“I am a conservative, and to me the conservative approach is the traditional approach,” Overbey said after Tuesday’s vote. “I think the true conservative approach is to look at tradition and say this has been the Tennessee tradition. It’s what has been in the Constitution since 1870.”

Overbey said the people who have served as attorney general have performed well and rendered good service to the state.

Beavers also objects to the nature of the relationship between the attorney general and the Supreme Court, since the attorney general argues cases before the same people who appoint the attorney general.

Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, pointed out in the committee meeting that there has been no corruption in the attorney general’s performance under the current system.

Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, told the committee the current system is the least political and most objective possible. He said an elected official in the position would be subject to political pressures.