By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The former chief executive of male escort website Rentboy.com pleaded guilty on Friday to having promoted prostitution, in a case that outraged gay and civil rights activists when it was announced last year.
Jeffrey Hurant, 51, entered his plea in federal court in Brooklyn. Easy Rent Systems Inc, which did business as Rentboy.com, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit money laundering.
Hurant told U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Levy that for over a decade, he agreed to accept payment from multiple advertisers on Rentboy.com and promote the exchange of sexual conduct in return for a fee.
Under a plea deal, Hurant agreed to not appeal any prison sentence of two years or less, while Easy Rent agreed not to appeal any fine of $10 million or less. Both are scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 2.
The guilty pleas came over a year after the August 2015 arrest of Hurant and six employees of Rentboy.com, which the U.S. Justice Department said was the largest online male escort website before being shuttered by the government.
The website, which was founded in 1996 and targeted gay men, carried disclaimers saying its advertisements for escorts were for companionship and not sexual services. But prosecutors said Rentboy.com was intended primarily to promote prostitution.
Escorts paid at least $59.95 per month and up to several hundred dollars to advertise on Rentboy.com, which attracted 500,000 unique visitors daily and generated more than $10 million from 2010 to 2015, prosecutors said.
The case prompted criticism from some gay rights activists and sex worker rights groups, who questioned why prosecutors were targeting the service after it had operated transparently for nearly two decades.
The New York Times, in an editorial in August 2015, said prosecutors had not justified shutting down "a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps."
Following the criticism, federal prosecutors in February dropped charges against the six Rentboy employees.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)