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Ruling in ex-professor’s Internet prostitution case sparks debate

By Abbott Koloff, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A former New Jersey physics professor argued in court papers that the New Mexico-based website he allegedly ran for men to meet and rate escorts did not promote prostitution under the law because it didn’t operate out of a building.

A New Mexico judge agreed in a recent ruling, sparking a debate over the adequacy of anti-prostitution laws across the country and whether they cover Internet sites. Authorities say the former Fairleigh Dickinson University professor, David C. Flory, operated a site called Southwest Companions as a virtual meeting place for prostitutes and their customers. Flory told police he ran the site as a hobby, and not to make money.

While a New Mexico law against promoting prostitution prohibits running a “house of prostitution” or a “place where prostitution is practiced,” that language refers to physical places, such as buildings, and not Internet sites, a 2nd District Court judge, Stan Whitaker, ruled on June 18.

Prosecutors had been preparing to seek an indictment against Flory and an alleged co-conspirator, F. Chris Garcia, a former president of the University of New Mexico, at a grand jury hearing scheduled for the same day the judge made his decision, court papers show. Whitaker ordered them to inform the grand jurors of his ruling. Prosecutors said last week that the grand jury hearing has been postponed indefinitely while they appeal the judge’s ruling.

Whitaker denied Flory’s request to keep the case from being heard by a grand jury. But his ruling that Internet sites are not the same as houses of prostitution under state law has effectively handcuffed the prosecution, some legal experts have said. It also spurred New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, to ask state legislators to craft legislation targeting Internet prostitution.

“A number of states were awakened by that decision,” said the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, Scott Burns. “There are statutes that have not kept up with technology and are being reviewed.”

Flory, 69, who lives in New York City and has a vacation house in Santa Fe, N.M., was arrested in New Mexico on June 19, 2011, and charged with 40 counts of promoting prostitution. Bernalillo County authorities said in court papers that he ran Southwest Companions as a place for men to meet prostitutes and to rate them on their “looks and skills.”

Flory’s attorney, Theresa Duncan, said in court papers that the 40 counts against her client simply represent the number of “reviews of alleged paid sexual encounters between members of the board.” She said New Mexico law prohibits promoting prostitution in a place, such as a building, but says nothing about the Internet.

New Jersey’s statute against promoting prostitution also refers to a “house of prostitution” but adds that the law also applies to running “a prostitution business.” Legal experts said the additional language might make it easier to prosecute some prostitution websites but might not apply to a message board run as a hobby, as Flory alleged was the case with his site.

New Mexico authorities have alleged that Flory ran his site at times when he would have been working in his office at FDU in Teaneck, and that he used a university email address to register it. Flory declined to comment this week, as he has in the past.

“I’m not prepared to comment,” he said when contacted on his cellphone. “I have kept that position, and I am going to keep it.”

An FDU spokesman, Scott Giglio, said last week that Flory retired on May 31 and was placed on an indefinite leave of absence four days after he was arrested, while the university waited for more information about “a pending investigation.”

Days after Flory retired, his attorney, Duncan, asked the judge in a court filing to stop prosecutors from presenting the case to a grand jury, arguing that an indictment would harm her client’s reputation even if it were later dismissed or he was found not guilty. The Bernalillo County deputy district attorney, Michael Fricke, responded in court papers that Flory is beyond having his reputation damaged, considering the publicity over his arrest last year.

“If any further damage to his reputation is possible, an indictment would only add incremental shame,” Fricke said.

Fricke also argued that a grand jury could reasonably determine that a website devoted to prostitution was “a place where prostitution is practiced.”

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