Should a publisher be criminally liable for prostitution ads?

A legislator who used to be a cop is trying to force the Hartford Advocate and other alternative papers to ban ads for the sex trade by making publishers criminally liable if an ad leads to an encounter with an underage prostitute.

The constitutionality of such legislation is untested, with a crusading anti-prostitution author, Raymond Bechard, calling it “cutting edge” at a news conference Monday.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the former attorney general, spoke in support at the news conference, but he left without taking questions about the bill promoted by Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, a retired police officer. As attorney general, Blumenthal once sued Bechard over his handling of charitable funds.

[See sidebar: Sen. Blumenthal, remember Mr. Bechard?]

Bechard Katell Berger

L to R, Raymond Bechard, Katell, Jeff Berger.

“Anyone who says it’s a victimless crime is just plain wrong,” Blumenthal said. “It is a scourge that exploits and ruins lives of countless individuals. And we need to do everything possible to stop it.”

Blumenthal was one of dozens of attorneys general who went after Craiglist, the online advertising site that became a portal to prostitution, including the exploitation of underage girls, according to federal authorities.

In 2010, a story in the New York Times projected that Craiglist would make $36 million selling sex.

Like the campaign against Craigslist, which closed its adult section and promises greater monitoring, the Connecticut legislation is designed to bring public pressure on publications that take sex ads.

Thinly disguised prostitution is advertised in the Advocate papers, a chain of alternative weeklies owned by New Mass Media, a subsidiary of the state’s largest daily, the Hartford Courant.

An ad from “Loveable Ladies” this week promises service that is “Prompt, Clean & Discreet, 24/7.” The ladies also say they are “ALWAYS HIRING!” “Spank Goddess” offers “a variety of fantasy, medical and sensual services,” major credit cards accepted.

Berger, who was a Waterbury police officer for 20 years, was the only state legislator at the news conference.

He said the impetus for the bill came from Bechard, who wrote a book about a sex trafficking case in Connecticut involving 14-year-old and 16-year-old prostitutes advertised in the Hartford Advocate. The case was the subject of a feature in Vanity Fair that Bechard says he prompted.

Amann set up a meeting, where Bechard briefed Berger and Rep. Gerald M. Fox, D-Stamford, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, about the ads.

“I was, quite frankly, beyond shocked,” Berger said.

Fox referred to the measure as the “Amann bill.”

Bechard says he has tried without success to discuss the ads with Richard J. Graziano, the publisher of The Courant.

Graziano did not return a call for comment, but a spokeswoman, Jennifer Humes, said the company “strongly supports the efforts of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee to combat the sexual exploitation of minors in newspaper print advertisements.”

She said the bill as written “is problematic due to concerns of constitutionality, enforcement and the inability of newspaper publishers to comply.”

Chris VanDeHoef, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, said the ads were protected under the First Amendment and a provision in the bill requiring newspapers to verify the ages of advertised “escorts” was unworkable.

The news conference Monday was hosted by James Amann, the former House speaker who now works as a lobbyist and entertainment promoter. He said he was unpaid for his advocacy of the anti-prostitution bill, but may work with Bechard on a documentary movie.

Bechard was accompanied by a woman who identified herself as a former prostitute advertised on Craiglist. She declined to give her full name, but identified herself as “Katell” from Newington in written testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee, which is hold a public hearing on the bill Monday.

She said she broke free of her pimp after an undercover Hartford police officer arrested her and a judge sent her to a halfway house.

“I am a victim of human trafficking,” she said. “What happened to me, how it happened, is not unique.”

Katell said the advertising for young prostitutes, whom she said are routinely drugged and abused, is in plain sight, while the suffering of the girls is hidden.

“No one sees what our pimps do to us, how they give us drugs to keep us awake for days, feed us just enough to keep us skinny and looking young,” she said.