The chief executive of rentboy.com pleaded not guilty to one count of violating the federal Travel Act and two counts of violating a federal money laundering statute during a February 10 court appearance.
“It makes no sense that he’s being prosecuted for a crime,” said Michael Tremonte, Jeffrey Hurant’s attorney and a partner at Sher Tremonte LLP, following the proceeding before Judge Lois Bloom in federal court in Brooklyn.
Arrested last August along with six of his employees, Hurant, who founded the gay escort website in 1997, faces one count of violating the federal Travel Act, which makes certain state crimes a violation of federal law when they are committed across state lines or by using a phone, email, snail mail, or other forms interstate commerce. The underlying state charges in this case are promoting prostitution and facilitating a crime by a person under 16. Hurant is also charged with two counts of violating a federal money laundering statute that makes it illegal to use the proceeds from illegal activity.
Picketers once again gather outside Brooklyn federal courthouse
Hurant was indicted on January 27 after months of plea negotiations. Easy Rent Systems, the legal business name, is also charged and Hurant pleaded not guilty for the corporation. There have been persistent rumors that the charges against the six employees will be dismissed, but there has been no court action in those cases. Attorneys for the six have not responded to requests for comment.
“Prior to this hearing, we’ve had discussions relating to a plea,” said Tyler Smith, the assistant US attorney who is prosecuting the case, during the hearing. “We’ll continue to have those discussions.”
Normally, the government has 70 days to bring a case to trial after issuing an indictment, but the defense and prosecution agreed on February 10 to stop the clock on that timetable so the plea discussions could continue and both sides would have time to review the mountain of evidence seized when the US Department of Homeland Security raided the rentboy.com offices.
The arrests and raid last August sparked an immediate and loud backlash in the LGBT community with protests in four cities, including a sizeable picket outside the Brooklyn federal courthouse, and denunciations of the action by a number of LGBT groups. Even the New York Times editorial page condemned the investigation. A smaller protest of a few dozen people was mounted outside the courthouse on February 10. Activists have charged the raid and arrests are little more than attack on gay sexuality.
“The feds don’t want to admit this, but this is a crazy prosecution,” said William Dobbs, a gay civil libertarian, during the February 10 picket. “It’s right out of the 19th century.”
Violations of the Travel Act carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. The indictment says that the government wants to seize roughly $1.6 million in cash from rentboy.com bank accounts. About $1.2 million of that amount is held in bank accounts owned by Hurant. The text of the indictment suggests that Hurant made no effort to conceal the proceeds. The money laundering charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Beginning in September, the defendants and the Brooklyn-based Office of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York filed repeated orders to continue the case, which effectively stopped the clock on the statutory time the prosecutor had to file an indictment. The most recent order was set to expire on January 29, two days after Hurant’s indictment came down.