Fact Check: What Cortez Masto did (and didn’t do) on sex trafficking policy
It starts as many political ads do — with a testimonial.
Called “No One,” it centers on a testimonial from Amy Ayoub, who was a victim of sex trafficking as a teen, “forced into a life,” the ad says, “of violence and exploitation.”
“For too long, others have looked away,” Ayoub says, looking directly into the camera. “But Catherine Cortez Masto has made it her mission to do something about it. She wrote the law to strengthen penalties against traffickers and allow survivors to sue their captors. And in the Senate, she led the fight to crack down on online sex trafficking.
“The truth is, there's no one who's done more than Catherine to fight sex trafficking in Nevada, and perhaps in all of America,” she continues.
Ayoub, a prominent political fundraiser and one-time member of the state’s athletic commission, has long backed Cortez Masto’s sex-trafficking efforts, even giving emotional testimony before state lawmakers in 2013 when the then-attorney general sponsored a law revamping the state’s trafficking statutes.
Before and since the passage of that law, Cortez Masto has cast herself as a crusader on the issue of sex trafficking, using it first in her intial bid for U.S. Senate in 2016. At the time, she spent an unspecified six-figures on a television ad that, in addition to tying her to the legislation, showed Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval praising her for it.
In the 2022 cycle, the issue played a more prominent role in the early phase of Cortez Masto’s campaign in the spring and summer, as she sometimes touted her work on sex trafficking through posts on Twitter in conjunction with new or old law enforcement-related endorsements.
Both tweets make a similar argument, with the former outlining it explicitly: “I'm proud of my record fighting for victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking,” it said — though the issue has since been subsumed on the campaign trail and on social media by other issues, namely abortion and attacks on her Republican opponent, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
Laxalt has less-often campaigned on his work on sex trafficking, though he has cast human trafficking more broadly as an immigration issue. At a speech during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) early this year, Laxalt laid the blame for “rampant” trafficking, drug crimes and fentanyl overdoses on “open borders” — a staple argument of his campaign stump speech.
However, Laxalt, during his early political career, still joined Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in praising praising Cortez Masto’s policies aimed at combating sex trafficking.
“I want to continue the fight that Attorney General Masto has done for human trafficking,” Laxalt said during a 2014 attorney general debate. “She's done an excellent job.”
Still, her record is not without its critics, nor is the issue without enormous complexity and a raft of remaining challenges and competing interests.
Those interests include religious groups, especially Christian groups, which have rallied behind sex trafficking as a unifying morality issue over the last two decades — and who have pushed against legal sex work, especially the state’s brothels, in the process. In doing so, they have pointed to ongoing trafficking and prostitution issues in Las Vegas, including the shutdown of an illegal brothel in the city just days ago.
All the while, sex workers have also raised concerns over the unintended consequences of her federal work, as efforts to clamp down on online traffickers have also undercut existing support systems for those workers.
In what ways was Cortez Masto responsible for changing Nevada law, and once it did change, how did her attorney general’s office enforce that law? How has it evolved in the years since, and — on Capitol Hill — what have the consequences of Cortez Masto’s continued congressional negotiations on these issues been?
Reshaping the law in Nevada
It wasn’t until 2013 that Cortez Masto spearheaded her magnum opus through the state Legislature: AB67, a measure that redefined existing statutes — usually referred to legally as pandering, or colloquially as pimping — under a new, wide-reaching umbrella of sex trafficking.
Nationwide, other states did not generally consider trafficking to be a separate crime until 2003, when Washington was the first state to redefine criminal law by including it as a new type of crime. Every state has since adopted some form of trafficking penalty, according to an analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Reliable data on sex trafficking in the United States as a whole — reported offenses, arrests and prosecutions — remains imprecise, in large part because of the methods used to gather data. Often used, for instance, is the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), which says it reviews cases of potential trafficking, but also disclaims that it cannot verify the information being reported.
However, like other sex crimes, it remains likely that trafficking incidents go widely unreported. In Nevada, the NHTH data shows the number of reported cases peaking in 2018 with 312 cases, of which 261 were purportedly sex-trafficking.
Dayvid Figler, a longtime criminal defense attorney in Las Vegas, told The Nevada Independent in an email that AB67 “reframed” those pandering statutes to include all forms of illegal prostitution, making it easier for police and prosecutors to pursue alleged trafficking while also expanding penalties, including for trafficking victims under 18 or for violent offenses. The law also funneled additional money toward enforcement, and sought to identify sex-trafficking victims who could then be entitled to resources.
“Sex trafficking thus became the catch-all for everyone who met the expanded definition,” Figler wrote. “So a pimp, abusive partner, really anyone who encouraged, transported or assisted a person regarding sex work (especially a person under 18) were now considered possible ‘sex traffickers’ — alongside those individuals who sought out a single or multiple people and physically or coercively forced them into involuntary sexual labor.”
On the legal side, Figler said that while many of those prosecuted in the post-AB67 landscape would have been prosecuted under similar statutes before the bill was passed, “more people were exposed to wider and more serious prosecutions, and everyone was potentially considered something different under the law with the new umbrella term — sex trafficker.”
For sex-trafficking advocates — especially those critical of the legal sex industry in Nevada more broadly — the change was welcome.
That includes Jason Guinasso, a Reno-based attorney who has worked with trafficking victims and is a registered Republican, who called Cortez Masto “a pioneer” on the issue and praised the law’s renewed focus on “the purchaser” in trafficking crimes.
“Cortez Masto, as attorney general, she spearheaded the massive change in the law that began to hold people accountable in real fundamental ways for their involvement in sex trafficking,” Guinasso said.
After the bill passed, Cortez Masto then took the then-unusual step of prosecuting a sex-trafficking case directly through the attorney general’s office, rather than a traditional prosecution at the county or city level. In that case, a Clark County grand jury indicted a Las Vegas resident, Evan Lloyd, for trafficking a minor in November 2013, and Lloyed pleaded guilty. He later withdrew that plea, however, and reached a plea bargain with the attorney general’s office for a lesser, non-trafficking charge in late 2014.
Cortez Masto’s office pursued another direct sex-trafficking case, this time against Mario Lamont Jones in 2014, but the judicial process extended beyond the end of her term. Ultimately, it was the office of her successor — and now Senate opponent — Adam Laxalt, who claimed the first trafficking conviction for the attorney general’s office.
More broadly, assessing the scope of sex-trafficking prosecutions relative to the amount of trafficking crime itself remains difficult, especially in child sex-trafficking cases where cooperation with law enforcement remains low.
Between 2011 and 2019, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department partnered with Arizona State University to analyze child sex-trafficking enforcement data. Across nine years, there was an average of 92 child sex-trafficking cases per year. However, only 28.1 percent of cases saw the child victims cooperating with police, a low rate that authorities, in a report on that study, attributed to the trauma inflicted on those victims.
At the federal level — long the primary venue for these prosecutions before 2013 — sex-trafficking prosecutions in Nevada have remained relatively rare. Overall, 34 people have been charged with a federal sex-trafficking offense in Nevada between 2010 and 2020, though annual numbers fluctuate from as many as eight prosecutions to as few as zero, according to an annual report from the Human Trafficking Institute.
Despite AB67’s expanded sex-trafficking umbrella created by Cortez Masto, some trafficking advocacy groups still say the state’s laws haven’t gone far enough. That includes Shared Hope International — a nonprofit, Christian anti-trafficking group that has long worked with Congress to research the issue — which also grades U.S. states yearly on, among other categories, the strength of anti-trafficking laws.
Nevada, alongside 40 other states, received an “F” grade, in some part because of alleged gaps, according to Shared Hope, in laws targeting trafficker and buyer accountability. In past years, however, Nevada had fared better — even receiving a “B” grade from the group as recently as 2018.
Even so, the laws governing these issues have shifted since Cortez Masto left the attorney general’s office, and additional changes still remain on the legislative radar. In 2021, for instance, lawmakers passed a law, AB64, giving the attorney general’s office more power to prosecute these offenses directly, including allowing it to charge additional crimes and set up online stings targeting buyers.
According to a Febraury 2022 presentation to lawmakers, those stings generated five guilty pleas for various sex offenses, though none under the trafficking statute. That presentation also alluded to three then-ongoing cases, though it was not clear if those were also trafficking cases.
Advocates have also outlined additional policy goals looking to strengthen victim supports, including eliminating the statute of limitations and creating legal mechanisms that could shield victims from their traffickers.
At the federal level, a push for online regulations
The second component of Cortez Masto’s campaign claims center largely around her support of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, SESTA, often known interchangeably by the dual-acronyms FOSTA-SESTA or SESTA/FOSTA, which joins the House-version of the same bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, to the Senate-side bill.
Though Cortez Masto has also cosponsored or supported a raft of other trafficking centered legislation — including measures that would increase the statute of limitations in trafficking cases involving minors and target trafficking at airports and other transit hubs — it is SESTA/FOSTA that garnered the most attention, and which has been used on the campaign trail.
Designed to curb illegal sex trafficking in online spaces, the legislation was originally designed to combat trafficking allegations from one longtime offender, Backpage.com, that had escaped prosecution in 2016 under Section 230, a seminal piece of American communications law that prevents websites from being held responsible for user-generated content.
The bill, proponents argued, would allow prosecutors to target websites facilitating trafficking just as they would normally target individual traffickers.
Those proponents include Cortez Masto, also a co-sponsor of the measure, who argued in 2018 that it would “empower prosecutors to crack down on websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.”
“For too long, these websites have been immune from criminal prosecution even when evidence against them is incontrovertible,” she said at the time. “This bill will change that by giving survivors the tools they need to bring the websites that intentionally facilitate and profit from this horrendous crime to justice.”
But advocates for legal sex work and other critics of the bill have long argued that SESTA/FOSTA has triggered a bevy of unintended consequences, especially as websites have sought to head off any allegations of trafficking by shutting down certain services.
Barb Brents, a sociology professor at UNLV who studies the political economy of sexuality, said the bill had “probably done more to make the problem of sex trafficking worse,” in part by removing online forums and other mechanisms that sex workers had used to protect their safety.
“It's much harder to communicate bad date lists, which are problematic clients. It's more difficult to share safety tips and contacts with each other, it's more difficult than screen clients,” Brents said. “And this has affected the most marginalized of sex workers, which are those that are most vulnerable to sex trafficking.”
Brents said the bill, even before it was passed, had begun to “scare the vast majority of platforms into staying far away from anything that smells like sex work,” which includes legal sex workers who chose the profession for circumstancial reasons, not because they were coerced.
“That meant that now, these individuals then have to turn to third parties who can help keep them safe,” Brents said. “Some of whom do a good job and don't exploit them, and some who do.”
In the time since its passage, additional reports on the bill's usage have also raised questions over how effective SESTA/FOSTA has been as a law enforcement tool more generally.
A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in June of last year found that — though alleged online trafficking platforms moved web hosting overseas after the law’s passage — only one case had been prosecuted under SESTA/FOSTA by the Department of Justice. That’s because, according to the report,“the law is relatively new and prosecutors have had success using other criminal statutes.”
In response to questions from The Nevada Independent about the efficacy of SESTA/FOSTA, Cortez Masto’s campaign said the measure was “important legislation to help crack down on human traffickers online.”
“In passing this law, Congress did its job and then handed it over to the prosecutors to do theirs,” a campaign spokesperson said. “These prosecutions take time, and there’s work to be done to increase their frequency so we can protect as many survivors as possible.”
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