The in-depth report [PDF] on sex trafficking in Minnesota pulled no punches, repeatedly naming sex ads on Craigslist.com in connection with specific cases in Coon Rapids, Eagan and other cities.
On Monday, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that compiled the hard-hitting report — The Advocates for Human Rights — received a check for $25,000 from the Craigslist Charitable Fund of San Francisco.
The generous gift was unsolicited and totally unexpected, said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director.
It was sorely needed after a year in which grants for nonprofits fell off a cliff.
But it will be returned, Phillips said.
“They know what’s going on with their site, and they are allowing it to continue,” Phillips said. “Making contributions doesn’t make up for facilitating human sex trafficking, and it doesn’t begin to repair the damage.”
The Advocates’ grant funding is down about 30 percent from two years ago, she said. But she added: “We cannot compromise our core principals to help alleviate our financial challenges. We have documented Craigslist’s facilitation of human sex trafficking and child exploitation in our own research. We cannot accept profits from these human rights violations to support our work, no matter how great our need.”
Phillips said she had no idea why the charitable arm of the classified advertising giant chose to donate such a large sum to a relatively small human-rights organization in Minnesota.
The three-paragraph letter accompanying the check said simply that the grant was “to be used in furtherance of the organization’s charitable purposes,” and that it could not be used to “for propaganda, to influence legislation or on behalf of candidates for public office.”
Craigslist Charitable Fund did not return MinnPost’s calls and emails asking for comment last night and this morning.
Profits from sex ads
It’s no secret, though, that the popular website has an acute PR headache and maybe a legal problem too.
The New York Times reported last week that Craigslist is on track to increase its revenue 22 percent this year — largely from its controversial sex ads, including $36 million from ads that blatantly tout prostitution. That comes after Craigslist, under investigation by attorneys general in 40 states, promised last May that it would monitor its posts for illegal activity.
Craigslist keeps its finances private, and the company would not confirm the revenue projections that were calculated by Advanced Interactive Media Group. The estimates were based on the number of sex ads counted on Craigslist over the month of February and the fees for posting such ads — $10 initially and $5 for repeat postings.
“That financial success is reviving scrutiny from law-enforcement officials who say the ads are still being used for illegal ends,” the Times said.
“Last week, in the latest example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 14 members of the Gambino crime family on charges of, among other things, selling the sexual services of girls ages 15 to 19 on Craigslist,” the Times said.
What happened to donations?
But law-enforcement officials have been fighting a mostly losing battle to get Craigslist to rein in the sex ads. Among other defenses, Craigslist has argued that it is legally protected by the Communications Decency Act against liability for what its users post.
James Buckmaster, Craigslist’s chief executive, had this to say to the Times: “Of the thousands of U.S. venues that carry adult service ads, including venues operated by some of the largest and best known companies in the U.S., Craigslist has done the best and most responsible job of combating child exploitation and human trafficking.”
Craigslist had been donating revenue from sex ads to charities, but the donations stopped during the uproar last year over running the ads at all, the Times reported.
This is where The Advocates in Minneapolis seems to fit into the picture: Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, complained to a Craigslist lawyer last week about prostitution ads on the site, the Times said. Among other criticisms, he questioned the decision to stop donating profits from those ads to charities.
The Times also asked Craigslist why the profits weren’t going to charities. Buckmaster, the chief executive, responded in an email: “Misuse of Craigslist for criminal purposes is utterly unacceptable, and Craigslist will continue to work with its partners in law enforcement and at nongovernmental organizations until it is eliminated.”
He also said the company was continuing to develop its charitable initiatives.
After the $25,000 check arrived at the offices of The Advocates in Minneapolis on Tuesday, the organization’s leaders tried calling the Craigslist Charitable Fund.
“I was trying to find out more about the context,” Phillips said. “The call wasn’t returned.”
The only “context” I could find in the public record was in the Form 990s that charities are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service. The most recent form for Craigslist Charitable Fund [PDF] was filed for the year 2008. It names Buckmaster and Craig Newmark, the Craigslist founder, as the fund’s uncompensated directors. And it says that Craigslist Inc. of San Francisco, the fund’s sole contributor, granted it $2.7 million. It does not say whether that sum came from sex ads.
Wherever the money came from, it’s seen as tainted in The Advocates’ offices.
“It is the exploitive behavior resulting from these ads that makes our efforts necessary,” The Advocates said in a statement.
Human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children have been leading causes for The Advocates. Human-rights groups rallied behind its report last year and persuaded the Minnesota Legislature to beef up the laws against the trafficking. Among other steps, the Legislature increased penalties and categorized sex trafficking as a “crime of violence” so there would be more restrictions on offenders and more aid for victims. It also expanded the list of those who could be held liable for sex trafficking.
Still, groups monitoring the issue say trafficking continues in the state. By extension, so does the need to fight it. That’s why the $25,000 must have been so very tempting for The Advocates.
“There is much work that remains to be done,” Jim Dorsey, who chairs The Advocates’ board of directors, said in a statement. “The Advocates, like many nonprofits, has been adversely affected by the economy. Therefore, we did not make the decision to turn down this grant lightly.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about international affairs, science and other topics for MinnPost.