SHOW LOW — The state Republican Party is faulting Rep. Tom O’Halleran and another Arizona Democratic representative for accepting political donations from people associated with a website suspected of promoting child sex trafficking.
O’Halleran, a first-term congressman from Sedona, vehemently denies knowingly accepting money from executives and family members of those associated with Backpage.com, a classified advertising website critics have accused of knowingly accepting ads offering sex with underage children.
O’Halleran represents Congressional District 1, which includes most of Pinal County. He defeated his Republican opponent, former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, in November’s general election.
Arizona GOP officials said that between October and January, O’Halleran accepted $2,700 from Backpage.com executive John Brunst and $5,400 from Ellona Spear, the wife of another Backpage.com executive. The donations total $8,100.
Lindsay Coleman, O’Halleran’s campaign spokeswoman, issued a short statement saying that when the congressman learned of the donation’s origin, he, in turn, donated the money to a sexual and domestic violence advocacy group.
“Tom has been a strong advocate for women and children,” she said. “The campaign was not aware of the donors’ affiliation with Backpage.com, and once we found out, we donated the funds to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.”
Arizona Republican Party spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said O’Halleran “accepted these donations in January — after The Backpage.com CEO (Carl Ferrer) was arrested and charged with pimping.”
“He and his PAC absolutely knew where the money came from and what it represented; they just didn’t care,” she said. “Congressman O’Halleran’s constituents deserve someone who represents their interests, not someone who takes money from those affiliated with child sex trafficking.”
U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Mesa, has also come under fire for accepting more than $50,000 from Backpage.com employees and their families. Sinema attempted to donate the money to an Arizona nonprofit for journalism, but the money was rejected when the nonprofit became aware of where the money was made through news reports.
The Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, the same group that accepted O’Halleran’s donation, also accepted Sinema’s money from Backpage.com.
“It’s disgusting and embarrassing to Arizona families that their elected officials will stoop so low and accept these donations,” Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said. “Tom O’Halleran is clearly so desperate to win re-election, he’s lost the ability to see right from wrong — but Republicans will hold him accountable for his actions.”
Cindy McCain, the wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain and an outspoken critic of Backpage.com and its practices, said of Sinema: “I am stunned that Congresswoman Sinema would take their money. She should have known better, but she still took it. And then she thinks she can just say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, let me give it away,’ that it’s somehow less tainted if she gives it to someone else.”
Other Democrats, Sinclair said, have been caught in the scandal’s growing blast radius.
Recently announced Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Garcia allegedly accepted $2,000 from website executives in 2014 and only recently donated the money after he was approached by reporters about it, GOP officials said.
Additionally, former U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick accepted $5,400 from Spear in August and $5,400 from Margaret Larkin, spouse of Backpage.com former co-owner James Larkin, in July for her failed Senate bid against John McCain.
Allegations connecting Backpage.com to child sex trafficking have been public since a 15-year-old girl filed a lawsuit in 2010 against the parent company of Backpage.com for abetting sex-trafficking. A high-profile U.S. Senate report released in January titled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking” caused such negative attention for the company, it announced it had shuttered its sex-advertising section the next day, though The New York Times reported child sex-trafficking continues on the website’s dating section. Currently, lawyers for James Larkin and Michael Lacey, the founders of Backpage.com, anticipate a federal grand jury to indict both men because of the U.S. Senate report.