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Phoenix publishers refuse to testify during sex-trafficking hearing

Former owners, James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey appear on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent subcommittee on Investigations hearing into knowing facilitation of online sex trafficking, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Phoenix executives at the website invoked the Fifth Amendment on Tuesday to avoid testifying before a Senate subcommittee on sex-trafficking ads.

Former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, both of Phoenix, and the company’s lawyer told a Senate panel Tuesday that they were invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Lacey and Larkin established the weekly alternative newspaper, Phoenix New Times, before selling in 2012.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report Monday charging that Backpage had created a lucrative marketplace that made child sex trafficking easier.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), appearing at the hearing, said the website had been linked to “hundreds and hundreds” of sex-trafficking cases.

The senator and his wife, Cindy McCain, have been staunch advocates against human trafficking. Cindy McCain was honored last year by the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards for her efforts.

“We have to do everything we can to put an end to human sex trafficking,” John McCain said to the panel. “… It’s so horrible that a lot times we shy away from discussing it,” McCain said.

John McCain pointed out that Arizona was particularly affected by the trafficking “back and forth across the border is a terrible issue.”

The report cited internal documents showing that up to 80 percent of the site’s ads were edited to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.

Backpage had denied the allegations, and the site shuttered its “adult” section in the U.S. Monday night to protest what it called government censorship.

“I’m sure that’s a pure coincidence,” Sen. McCain said of the timing of the shutdown.

Backpage executives Carl Ferrer and Andrew Padilla also refused to testify.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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