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Cuccinelli, authorities announce online-predator arrests

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Twenty people across Virginia have been arrested on charges of online solicitation of a minor or child pornography after a weeklong undercover investigation last year, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II and other law enforcement officials announced Thursday.

In addition to the arrests, officials executed 23 search warrants in connection with the project, dubbed "Operation Phalanx," and another 20 cases were referred for investigation and prosecution outside the state. Those referrals involve cooperation with law enforcement officials elsewhere in the country, as well as in Australia and France.

"While the Internet is a great educational tool, it's a great tool of productivity, for young people, it can also be a dangerous place in addition to everything else it has to offer," Mr. Cuccinelli, flanked by law enforcement officials, said at the news conference.

Mr. Cuccinelli's computer crime section provided legal guidance for the operation, the first of its kind to include his office and Virginia's two Internet crimes against children task forces.

The Northern Virginia/D.C. Task Force, based with Virginia State Police, and the Southern Virginia Task Force, based in the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, work with dozens of affiliated agencies at the state, local and federal level, including the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and local police departments and sheriff's offices.

"When you talk about the types of crimes that bring us here today ... it's especially very disturbing, because the targets of these crimes are our children, our innocent children," said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police superintendent. "It's really beyond disturbing when you think of the sheer numbers of images that we're talking about."

One case in Fairfax County, he said, involved a person who had thousands of images.

"Basically, his life revolved around distributing and possessing child pornography," Col. Flaherty said.

The same operation conducted by the Northern Virginia/D.C. Task Force turned up a different person via an online message board that had embedded links to child pornography.

"Neither of these cases, neither of these individuals, were connected to one another," he said. "It's in Virginia, it's everywhere, and the Internet knows no boundaries, so neither [do] we."

Funding for the task forces ran into something of a controversy during the General Assembly session. A 2010 law shepherded by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, Bath Democrat, imposed an additional $10 fee on criminal sentences to go toward a fund dedicated to the task forces.

The law ended up generating about $1.3 million more than expected, which Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed to transfer elsewhere in his two-year budget blueprint. But the General Assembly ended up earmarking the money specifically for combating online child predators after urging from Mr. Cuccinelli, lawmakers in both parties, law enforcement officials, and advocates.

"We're in a good position at this point," said Mr. Cuccinelli, who said his office communicates pretty regularly during the budget process with the governor's staff.

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