By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors are dropping charges against six former employees of the male escort website Rentboy.com who were accused of promoting prostitution, in a case that has outraged gay and civil rights activists, court papers filed Wednesday showed.
The six employees were arrested in August along with former Rentboy.com Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Hurant. But while Hurant continues to face charges, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, moved to dismiss a complaint against the six other defendants.
The decision was expected after prosecutors in January secured an indictment from a federal grand jury charging only the company and Hurant, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he promoted prostitution and engaged in money laundering.
At the time of the indictment, a lawyer for one of the six employees, former Rentboy sales agent Clint Calero, said prosecutors had extended his client a non-prosecution agreement.
The lawyer, James Roth, said on Wednesday that he was "pleased that the government conceded that Mr. Calero's role as an employee of Rentboy did not warrant criminal prosecution."
The decision to drop charges followed criticism among some gay rights activists, who held a protest in September and have questioned why prosecutors targeted the service after it had operated transparently for nearly two decades.
The other employees included Michael Belman, Rentboy.com's marketing director; sales agent Diana Mattos; Edward Estanol, an escort who previously coordinated social media; and Marco Decker, an accountant.
Lawyers for those five employees did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers declined comment.
Rentboy.com, founded in 1996, became what authorities say was the largest online male escort website, and even hosted an annual escorts awards show called the Hookies.
The website carried disclaimers saying its advertisements for escorts were for companionship and not sexual services. But authorities say 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.
Critics of the case include The New York Times, which in an editorial in August said prosecutors had not justified shutting down "a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps."
(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler)