Orlando Weekly workers charged with aiding prostitution

10/22/07 Seán Kinane
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Last Friday, three employees of the alternative newspaper, Orlando Weekly, were arrested on charges of promoting prostitution by selling classified advertisements to escort services.

Vice agents for the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, or MBI, arrested the three and charged the newspaper with racketeering and 17 counts of aiding in the commission of prostitution.

Paul Zambouros is the commander of the Vice and Organized Crime Section of the MBI. He said that in 1996 when MBI approached Orlando Weekly with similar evidence, the newspaper voluntarily scaled back its escort section of the classifieds.

“What we found is that when that disappeared, all the escort industry in Orlando disappeared because advertising is the lifeblood for the escort industry, they can’t function without some form of advertisements.”

The Orlando Weekly has published many reports critical of the MBI over the years, and claims in a statement that the arrests are “an outrageous abuse of process and an attempt to censor the First Amendment rights of a newspaper that has reported critically on the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation.”

Glenn Katon is director of the Central Region Office for the ACLU of Florida.

“Depending on if there’s evidence to support that, then yeah, that could go into it would be similar to a prosecutorial misconduct argument. And if the department [MBI] was going after the [Orlando] Weekly because of the stories it had done in the past, then sure, that would be a huge concern that there’s persecution going on against the press which obviously, one of the ACLU’s biggest issues is supporting freedom of the press. If the [Orlando] Weekly was being persecuted for its stories, then that would be a very big ACLU issue.”

But the MBI’s Zambouros said that last week's arrests were made because Orlando Weekly did not respond to the MBI’s recent warnings by rejecting the questionable ads like they did in 1996. He claims that the fact that the MBI did not bring charges then is evidence that last week’s arrests are not retribution against Orlando Weekly for its critical reporting.

“However this time they just thumbed their noses at us and didn’t take any action. And we’re not going to let anybody go ahead and openly promote prostitution. I mean, that’s what they were doing, we made them aware of it, and they weren’t going to take any action. They’re an alternative newspaper, so what they do is they’re critical of the police in general. So we’re not concerned about what they say about us, believe me. I know they’re going to be negative about us. But the bottom line is that they violated the law and we charged them with it.”

According to its website, “MBI is a 13 agency local, state, and federal law enforcement task force responsible for investigating medium to high level Narcotics, Vice, and Organized Crime organizations.”

A letter dated June 1, 2007, from the MBI to the parent company of Orlando Weekly, the Times-Shamrock Communications Alternative Newsweekly Group, claims the Orlando Weekly has gained $900,000 from the Adult Services Section of the classified ads that “is clearly being used by prostitution services.”

In addition, the letter said the Orlando Weekly has earned nearly $1.5 million in revenue from another section of the classified ads and requested that the newspaper “establish additional controls to make it more difficult for prostitution services to use the Certified Massage Section.”

Undercover officers posed as prostitutes in order for the MBI to gather evidence against Orlando Weekly, according to Zambouros.

“During that course, we had two female agents again go undercover and just blatantly told them that we’re prostitutes, that this is what we want to do, this is what we offer. What we had is the advertising staff for the Orlando Weekly cover for our escorts, like say we’ll put your name in here in a certain way so that the police wouldn’t be able to find it. There’s no doubt that they should have known they were prostitutes, but yet they helped them with their business.”

The ACLU’s Katon said that if the MBI charges are accurate, the Orlando Weekly or its classifieds employees might be criminally liable.

“One of the stories I read said that the MBI had no doubt that the people taking the ads were aware that the ads were being taken by supposed prostitutes. So if you read between the lines there, what they are saying is that they had people posing as prostitutes taking the ads and if that’s the case, then if there really is evidence to support that, then there probably is criminal liability. … But it remains to be seen if there really is any evidence to support that.”

Sherry Smith, the publisher of Creative Loafing, the alternative newsweekly in Tampa, said Creative Loafing doesn’t accept ads for illegal services.

“No, we really haven’t had any complaints or calls from the Tampa Police. I don’t really know what the policies are in Orlando. Our policy is to definitely not accept any advertising for illegal products or services. …Well, definitely if somebody said ‘I’m in the business of prostitution,’ we would not accept their advertising.”

Katon said that the ACLU disagrees with the criminalization of sex between consenting adults.

“In terms of the ACLU’s position on the idea that they’re going after this activity in the first place is kind of silly that they would be infringing just on the general right of individual’s privacy, because people’s private sexual conduct is their own business. Obviously we’re talking about consenting adults here and that’s no place for the police to be trying to be punishing people as long as the people involved are consenting adults.”

WMNF contacted Orlando Weekly for comment regarding the arrest of three employees on charges of aiding prostitution, but they did not return our call by airtime.

For more information:

Orlando Weekly

Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation

Association of Alternative Newsweeklies

Orlando Sentinel report

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