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Nation's porn prosecutor fronts war against obscenity

Published February 26, 2007 3:07 am

The former U.S. Attorney in Utah heads a national anti-porn task force
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - Maybe, from now on, the girls will be a little less wild, thanks to Brent Ward.

Ward, who was among the most strident adversaries of the porn industry as U.S. Attorney in Utah in the 1980s, is heading a new Justice Department task force aimed at enforcing federal obscenity laws.

In his first year, his biggest win came against the makers of the "Girls Gone Wild" videos - whose blurred-out party-girl ads are a late-night TV staple - who failed to document the ages of the women in the videos, as required by law, and agreed to pay $2.1 million in fines.

"Girls Gone Wild" may not be the most outrageous content around, but Ward says it puts producers on notice that they're being watched, and could keep underage girls from being exploited.

Anti-pornography crusaders are glad to have Ward on the job.

"He's one of my heroes," said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values. "I wish the Department of Justice was full of Brent Wards."

But Andrew McCullough, a lawyer who defended strip clubs and adult video stores in Utah, says it is disturbing that the government wants to decide what adults can watch.

"Obviously we don't see the world the same way," says McCullough.

The way Ward sees it, American culture is saturated with pornography, and it has profound consequences, eroding families, increasing violence against women, warping perceptions of sex and helping child predators groom victims.

"We're not going to prosecute it away, but it's important, I think, that Americans see their government trying to do something about it," he said. The task force, with a total of four prosecutors, 10 FBI agents and a postal inspector, has the job of putting together cases that can be prosecuted by U.S. attorneys in various states.

It's a bid to revive obscenity prosecution, Ward said, after a dormant period in the Clinton administration, which coincided with an explosion of Internet pornography.

"To me, it was clearly a big mistake," Ward said. "Vigorous action, when Internet dissemination of pornography was growing and still in its infancy might have had a significant deterrent effect and we might not be where we are now."

Estimates on the size of the porn industry range from $4 billion to $12 billion, and the Internet has made it more accessible, although a recent University of California-Berkeley study said only 1 percent of Web sites contain pornographic material.

Nonetheless, Ward says most obscenity cases today are Internet-related, and the content is more extreme than when he was a Utah prosecutor building a reputation fighting magazine and mail-order video distributors.

"Back in the '80s, Brent was one of the two or three prosecutors willing to take on pornography," said Robert Peters, of the group Morality In Media.

In a case Ward says opened his eyes to pornography's harm, he battled "dial-a-porn" phone sex lines that allowed children to make countless calls to hear explicit material. And he essentially closed the last two X-rated theaters in Utah after convicting their owner on tax charges.

He testified about pornography's dangers before a commission created by Attorney General Edwin Meese and in 1985 recommended a strategy for "testing the endurance" of pornographers by charging them in several states to crush them financially.

"As profitable as these enterprises may be, there is a limit to the prison terms, fines and forfeiture of assets to which obscenity distributors will subject themselves," Ward wrote. Meese launched a major pornography crackdown and Ward was picked to lead a group of U.S. attorneys, advising the attorney general on obscenity matters.

Several companies buckled and closed, but P.H.E., Inc., a North Carolina-based mail-order company, fought back, arguing the anti-porn strategy was an abuse of prosecutorial power.

Wade Smith, a lawyer who defended P.H.E., said Ward took a hard line in his distaste for pornography.

"He was unwilling to acknowledge that there was a place for any kind of adult material in the framework of the First Amendment," including publications like Playboy, Smith said. "As a matter of fact, he was extremely and completely rigid in wanting us out of business."

Judges first in Washington, D.C., and later the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the strategy went too far. The 10th Circuit judges called the charges "the tainted fruit of a prosecutorial attempt to curtail P.H.E.'s future First Amendment protected speech."

The strategy hasn't been used since in obscenity cases.

McCullough said Ward's legacy is still evident in Utah: Most adult movie distributors won't even deliver to the state.

"They do that purely because of Mr. Ward. Utah has a reputation of coming down on porn to the point where people wouldn't mail one in," McCullough says. "Brent Ward stamped that so loudly on us that we can't shake it."

Ward left the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1989, joining Huntsman Corp. as a senior executive. He made his anti-porn work central to a failed campaign for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 1992.

While practicing law and serving on the board of Utah Citizens for Positive Community Values, Ward fought for a state law aimed at strip clubs that would have required dancers, as well as art class models and others, to wear at least a bikini. The Legislature never passed it.

A Mormon, Ward was a stake president in Utah until he was offered the task force job in October 2005.

His office has won convictions and filed charges against distributors in Texas, Michigan, Arizona and California. Although Ward says his office has the resources to do the job, anti-porn advocates want more. Burress says Ward should get at least three more prosecutors and another $500,000.

"He's like Patton. He's run out of gas," Burress says. "Give him some gas and he'll win the war."

Brent D. Ward

* AGE: 61

* FAMILY: Married, father of seven

* BORN: San Francisco, Calif.

* RAISED: Salt Lake City

* EDUCATION: University of Utah law school

* EXPERIENCE: Clerked for U.S. District Judge Aldon Anderson; legislative assistant to Sen. Wallace Bennett; trial attorney in U.S. Department of Justice's environmental division; U.S. attorney for Utah, 1981-1989; senior vice president, general counsel and chief administrative officer for Huntsman Corp.; sought Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1992; co-founder, Starbridge Systems, a Utah firm that makes "hypercomputers"