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Why Is Sean Combs the Subject of a Homeland Security Investigation?

The raids of Sean Combs’ homes in Los Angeles and the Miami area this past week raised a barrage of questions about the nature of the inquiry, which a federal official said was at least in part a human trafficking investigation.

The government has said little about the basis for the search warrants, but the raids came after five lawsuits were filed against Combs in recent months that accused him of violating sex trafficking laws. In four of the suits women accused him of rape, and in one a man accused him of unwanted sexual contact. Combs, a hip-hop impresario known as Puff Daddy and Diddy who has been a high-profile figure in the music industry since the 1990s, has vehemently denied all of the allegations, calling them “sickening.” Officials have not publicly named him as a target of any prosecution.

As the lawsuits against Combs illustrate, the term human or sex trafficking has a broader meaning in the law than perhaps the more popularly understood image of organized crime and forced prostitution rings.

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“Traditionally you think of trafficking as a pimp who has a stable of victims and then is trafficking them in the traditional sense of the word, for money,” said Jim Cole, a former supervisory special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who oversaw human trafficking cases, “but there are lots of forms of trafficking.”

The breadth of trafficking investigations has grown with the recent uptick in sexual abuse claims and the use of the internet by traffickers. Homeland Security Investigations often leads such criminal investigations, although the department is most commonly associated with immigration and transnational issues.

In the current inquiry, federal investigators in New York have been interviewing potential witnesses about sexual misconduct allegations against Combs for several months, according to a person familiar with the interviews. Some of the questions involved the solicitation and transportation of prostitutes, as well as any payments or promises associated with sex acts, the person said.

The search warrants were executed this week by Homeland Security, which has carried out such investigations since it started operations in 2003. In 2020, the agency created the Center for Countering Human Trafficking in an effort to better coordinate their anti-trafficking work across the department.

With the #MeToo era and its aftermath giving rise to sexual abuse allegations against scores of powerful men, prosecutors have turned more frequently to federal sex trafficking laws to prosecute cases. Those laws allow for federal prosecution of sexual assault — typically a crime handled on the state level — and they have longer statutes of limitation than some abuse charges, allowing prosecutors to try to convict a person on allegations dating back years.

Homeland Security took a leading role in investigating the case that led to the first criminal punishment against R&B artist R. Kelly. It came in a federal trial in New York City that ended in his conviction on a count of racketeering and violations of an anti-sex-trafficking law known as the Mann Act. Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted on sex trafficking and other charges for conspiring to sexually exploit underage girls with Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself in his jail cell as he awaited his own trial on similar charges.

And Keith Raniere received a 120-year prison sentence in the Nxivm sex cult scandal for sex trafficking and other crimes. He was convicted after the prosecution overcame an argument from his lawyers that his was not a legitimate sex trafficking case because the charges did not involve sexual exploitation for profit, but rather sex coerced through promises of increased status, among other claims.

“More recently prosecutors have been more aggressive with prosecuting trafficking cases to the fullest extent that they can,” said Elizabeth Geddes, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the team that won the case against Kelly.

Geddes said prosecutors have been effective because the main federal sex trafficking law, passed in 2000, is broad, making it a crime for anyone to use “force, fraud or coercion” to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act. Courts have interpreted this as receiving anything of value — not necessarily money.

The recent escalation of Combs’ legal troubles began in November, when his former girlfriend Casandra Ventura, who makes music as the singer Cassie, filed a lawsuit accusing him of years of sexual and physical abuse. Ventura accused Combs in the court papers of forcing her to have sex with male prostitutes in front of him. She said he instructed her to use websites and escort services to find prostitutes to participate in what he called “freak offs.”

“Sometimes, Mr. Combs would pay to fly male sex workers to his location, including to multiple cities in the United States as well as abroad,” the lawsuit said. “He required Ms. Ventura and his staff to help him make these arrangements.”

Ventura’s lawsuit was filed shortly before the deadline for the Adult Survivors Act, a New York law that provided a window for plaintiffs to file sexual abuse claims outside the statute of limitations. The suit was settled in a single day, with both sides saying it had been resolved “amicably,” temporarily giving the impression that Combs’ team might have contained a problem.

But four more lawsuits followed, including the most recent one filed by the male music producer, who accused Combs of forcing him to hire prostitutes and participate in sex acts with them. A lawyer for Combs responded to the lawsuit by saying that the producer was “shamelessly looking for an undeserved payday.”

In addition to claims of sexual assault and battery, Ventura’s lawsuit cited the federal sex trafficking statute. Douglas H. Wigdor, one of the lawyers representing her, said in a recent interview that his client’s claims fit the framework for sex trafficking, and pointed to allegations in the lawsuit that Combs used force and coercion to induce Ventura into sex acts.

“It meets the definition,” he said. “It includes isolation, confinement and monitoring, and there’s obviously force.”

The statute of limitations for the federal sex trafficking law is 10 years. Ventura’s allegations span the mid-2000s through 2018.

The investigation into Combs, 54, burst into public view on the afternoon of March 25, when local television footage surfaced of agents from Homeland Security Investigations entering his mansion in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. His home in Miami Beach, Florida, was raided the same day, and Combs was met by federal agents at a Miami-area airport where he had been planning to leave on a flight to the Bahamas. Arrested at that time was a 25-year-old associate named Brendan Paul, who was charged with cocaine possession. Among the items that agents recovered in the raids were electronic devices, weapons and ammunition, a federal official said.

A lawyer for Combs, Aaron Dyer, called the raids a “gross overuse of military-level force” and “nothing more than a witch hunt based on meritless accusations made in civil lawsuits.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have been increasingly turning to state and federal trafficking statutes as a means of possible recourse with the passage of legislation like the Adult Survivors Act in New York, and a similar law in California.

Ann Olivarius, a lawyer who has used such statutes in sexual misconduct lawsuits, said that the influx of such lawsuits will likely lead the courts in the coming years to make decisions as to the proper interpretation of trafficking laws, which she said are relatively untested.

“It’s a young area of the law,” Olivarius said. “The whole notion of sex trafficking is really under review.”

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