The sting: The FBI, the prostitution ring and the governor
The FBI agents were alerted by suspicious money movements. They thought they had stumbled across political corruption. It turned out they had rumbled a high-class prostitution ring – and exposed Eliot Spitzer, a political superstar who made his name as a sleaze-buster
Wednesday 12 March 2008
Arrogance is one of those words that beg the company of a qualifier, in this case, "breathtaking". Certainly both belong, together and separately, to the scandal of Eliot Spitzer, the Governor of New York (at the time of writing, anyway) and his reckless (another appropriate term) detours into the world of high-class prostitution. But no words, in any combination, sufficed yesterday in trying to make sense of his actions.
Just read, if you have the stomach, the affidavit widely available online detailing the alleged events of 13 February inside Room 871 at the swanky May-flower Hotel in Washington, close to the White House (and this newspaper's bureau). He, sources have confirmed, is Client 9. She was Kristen, young, brunette and 5ft5ins, and quite sanguine about this john's reputation for activities "you might not think safe". He had reserved four hours with her. He used only half that. Who could make this stuff up?
Or watch again that 67-second appearance of Spitzer before the press on Monday, just after the tale first broke on the website of The New York Times. It is Silda, his wife of 21 years, you will most pay attention to, and their three daughters, aged 17, 15 and 13. How dare these disgraced politicians always demand that their wronged wives stand beside them to share their humiliation? Larry Craig, the foot-tapping, "I'm-not-gay" Republican Senator, did it last year too. So did "I-am-gay" James McGreevey, once Governor of New Jersey. The cruelty astounds.
Only human, are the kindest words we might manage for Mr Spitzer today. Humans have flaws such as arrogance. Most who have known Mr Spitzer over the years would say it has been with him for ever, the spoiled kid from an immigrant family made rich from property dealings. His other fault: extreme intelligence – Yale, Harvard – which, in turn, fed that arrogance. And arrogance breeds recklessness.
All those qualities served Mr Spitzer, 48, exceptionally well when he was New York's attorney general for two terms. The "Sheriff of Wall Street" took no hostages, hunting down rule-benders in the financial industry, whether individuals or institutions. Banks, brokerage houses, insurance giants, all caved to his crusading zeal, begging to cut deals to avoid the embarrassment of prosecution.
Did we mention ambition? No one was surprised that Mr Spitzer would eventually seek to parlay his success as the state's senior prosecutor to seek its governorship in 2006. He really was a popular hero who won the vote with almost 70 per cent, a historic mandate in New York by any standards. That surely fed his arrogance too. "I am a fucking steamroller," he famously told one lawmaker in Albany, the state capital,on taking office. He would get his way on everything and no one had better stand in his way.
The trouble that these attributes got Mr Spitzer into as Governor has been one of the surprises of the past 15 months. He actually told one reporter half-way through last year that perhaps he was, after all "not naturally suited to this job". That is quite a confession. To his critics, it was obvious. Bending an obstinate legislature – especially since its upper chamber remained, tenuously, under Republican control – called perhaps not for ranting and shouting, but gentle, polite cajoling.
Still, most New Yorkers were simply dumbfounded by Monday's news, or at least for a while.
As word of it swirled through the halls of Albany, many thought it was a joke. Not him, it can't be. At first, all we were told was that he had been "involved" with a prostitution ring. What did it mean? Before long, that affidavit surfaced and much more became clear. The ring was called the Emperor's Club VIP. It offered call-girls to the rich, sometimes for $5,500 an hour in places as far apart as New York, Los Angeles and London. And four of those who allegedly ran it had been arrested by federal officials a few days before.
We began to surmise also that that night of 13 February, the eve of Valentines Day, almost certainly was not the only time Mr Spitzer had availed himself of its services. This is when that other question popped up, as it always does in these cases. (Gary Hart and his mistress, Bill Clinton and Monica, the list is long.) What made him think he could get away with it?
No one knows the law like Mr Spitzer. Good Lord, didn't he target not just corporate crime as Attorney General but prostitution rackets also? He busted at least two call-girl rings in those years, one based in Staten Island. Did he learn nothing?
It is not even as if he might have got away with it, but for some really bad luck. Was it just unfortunate that Mr Spitzer, flipping through the Yellow Pages (or, in this case, the internet pages) settled on an outfit that just happened, unbeknownst to him, to be the target of a federal anti-prostitution probe? No, that is not what happened. Mr Spitzer was careless beyond belief, and set his own trap months ago.
Let's change the scenery and leave the gilded elegance of the Mayflower for a moment and focus instead on a nondescript three-storey building on Long Island across the road from a Dunkin' Donuts.
Inside are offices belonging to the Internal Revenue Service, used specifically by inspectors trained to spot bank transfers that seem suspicious. Last year, they had a tip-off from a bank about dealings which fell exactly under that category, and the name attached to them was none other than Eliot Spitzer. It appeared he was regularly transmitting large sums to entities the inspectors quickly discovered were nothing but shell companies. Companies, in other words, that did not actually do anything.
The alarm bells sounded instantly. Because of the political profile of the holder of these funds, special permission had to be sought from the US Attorney General to proceed. The green light was given. The assumption at first was that Mr Spitzer was embroiled in some sort of financial skullduggery, corruption perhaps or a bribery scam. It occurred to no one that prostitution was involved. But it didn't take long for the truth to surface, as the investigators began to tie the shell corporations, identified as QAT Consulting, QAT International and Protech Consulting, to the Emperor's Club out in New Jersey.
Learning all this now brings several things to mind. First, there is the fact that the Governor's activities were known to investigators for months and no one succumbed to the temptation to leak. For the rest of us, The New York Times scoop – which reporters had been toiling over since last Friday after the arrest of the Emperor Four – came out of the blue.
Second, we begin to get the picture that Mr Spitzer's dealings with the service date well back into 2007. And third, most importantly, the debate begins about the degree of legal trouble he may now find himself in. The Feds rarely prosecute clients of prostitution rings simply for using their services. But it is the money movements that are potentially more serious here.
Any evidence that the transactions were set up in a way deliberately to conceal their purpose could be construed as so called "structuring", a felony crime in the United States that can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison. If Mr Spitzer appeared still yesterday to be resisting a growing clamour – from Albany Republicans especially – for him to resign, it could be that he was hoping to use his office as Governor as leverage to negotiate the best possible deal with prosecutors.
Among those demanding he step down was James Tedisco, the Republican minority leader in the Albany Assembly. "The Governor who was going to bring ethics back to New York State, if he was involved in something like this," he declared loudly, "he's got to leave. I don't think there's any question."
If he does go, the rules stipulate that Mr Spitzer be succeeded by the number two official in the state, the Lieutenant General, David Paterson. A former assemblyman from Harlem, he would become the first African American Governor of the Empire State (and the first, by the way, who is legally blind).
Mr Paterson, not surprisingly, has been keeping a low profile since the scandal erupted. He is well-liked by both sides in Albany and, incidentally, has been a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton in her primary race with Barack Obama, sometimes travelling to campaign events at her side. (Expect the former first lady and New York Senator to run away from this imbroglio just as fast as her legs will carry her.)
Human trafficking sounds harsh but herein lies another problem for Mr Spitzer. The law gets serious here when prostitutes are moved across state borders to deliver their services. That appears to have happened here. The affidavit is replete with details of how the night with Kristen was set up, and even how it eventually went down inside Room 871, all gleaned from wiretaps of calls, emails and texts.
A first conversation dated 12 February is between Client 9 and Temeka Lewis, allegedly the booking agent for the Emperor's Club and among the four arrested last Friday. It is about money and her concern that a "package" expected from him had not arrived. (The package is assumed by agents to be a deposit from Mr Spitzer.) Had he sent it to QAT as agreed? "Yup, same as in past," the client replies. "No question about it." Next come communications between Ms Ms Lewis and Kristen suggesting she be ready to leave New York the next day at about 4.45pm by train to Washington, "if DC appt happens".
All is a go later that day after Ms Lewis learns that the "package" has indeed arrived. The client has already told her of his plans to book a room at the hotel. He has also inquired as to who would be coming. Told it would be Kristen, he says, "Great, OK, wonderful."
It is the day of the appointment when he asks to be reminded of her looks. She is "an American, petite, very pretty brunette, 5ft 5ins, and 105 pounds" is the reply. They also agree he will cover all costs, train and taxi fares, minibar and room service too if required. And her time. There is also a discussion about giving $2,721 directly to Kristen to cover a balance still owed plus a bit more, apparently for future appointments. Client 9 suggests an additional $1,000 if he can find a cash machine with enough money. M Lewis indicates that $1,500 would be better.
Of course, getting a call girl into your hotel is awkward with your security detail hanging around. But the wiretaps reveal that Mr Spitzer informs Lewis that Kristen should go directly to Room 871 – which he has booked in the name of a friend and political donor, George Fox – and bypass reception. She will arrive first and he will leave the door ajar with the key just inside. Kristen was also instructed by Ms Lewis to text her when she arrived and again when the assignation was over.
In fact, the affidavit suggests, Kristen called Ms Lewis upon completion of her duties at 12.02am. They discussed Client 9's reputation for being "difficult" because of his habit of asking the girls to "do things that you might not think were safe". Kristen had no problems. "I have a way of dealing with that," she coolly responded. "I mean, it's just kind of like... whatever ... I'm here for a purpose. I know what my purpose is. I am not a... moron, you what I mean."
The moron in this case appears to have been someone else. Arrogance and recklessness both apply here, qualities that left Mr Spitzer yesterday notably short on friends and allies in his moment of greatest need.
And, of course, there is that other sin that has brought down so many other public figures before him: lust.
Spitzer's 2006 'Responsibility Road' election campaign ad
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