Federal court in Boston has now seen what could be the final act in the drama of the United States Attorney versus The Hooker Who Would Extort. Michelle Robinson (hereinafter, the “Defendant” ) has pleaded guilty to the Massachusetts white collar crime of extortion in return for a rather unusual sentence.
Due to some unfortunate internet circumstances experienced out of state, this otherwise daily blog posting is the continuation Part One of the story which can be found here. It should have been posted last Thursday. However, in the meantime, the debate has continued to rage.
The alleged facts were laid out in greater detail in Part One. However, to briefly recap, a 60 year-old gentleman, (hereinafter, “John”), wanted what he calls a “last hurrah” with a young woman. He elected the Defendant, an alleged prostitute, to “hurrah” with him. After about 18 months, he ended his “hurrah”. The Defendant responded by informing him that, unless he gave her enough money, she would reveal his identity to the world as having engaged her services. At first, John paid. Then, when she wanted more, he hired a lawyer and made a deal with the federal authorities to blow the whistle on her scheme if they would grant him immunity from prosecution…as well as from identity revelation.
The feds had to jump through hoops in order to accommodate John. However, being as he had former United States Attorney Stern as his lawyer, and as John was an influential business man himself, jumped they did to build the case of wire fraud and threats in interstate communications, making what otherwise would have been a state-prosecuted case about prostitution and extortion.
The subject of the ongoing debate, however, is another hoop the government had to jump through. Namely, they had to keep John’s identity secret .
What to do?
Why, incarcerate the indigent Defendant until she agrees to plead guilty, pay back the money and keep her mouth shut!
And, indeed, last week, that is what happened. Well, sort of. After the Defendant declined the offer to pay back John, it was agreed that the money will instead go to a federal victim’s support fund
Prosecutors offered the prostitute six months in prison if she pleaded guilty to the crime, even though the sentencing guidelines call for about three years in prison.
She had already served the six months.
The Honorable Judge Mark Wolf, who oversaw the matter, questioned the prosecutor as to why the proposed deal called for such little time. In a filing, the prosecution wrote that they wanted to avoid a situation in which the prostitute didn’t agree to plead guilty and instead went to trial, where the businessman’s identity would surely be revealed. In other words, prosecutors didn’t want to set a precedent whereby whistleblowers are discouraged from coming forward.
“The sentence sends the important message to extortion victims that the government takes this crime . . . seriously, and accordingly encourages extortion victims to report such criminal activity,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney James P. Dowden in a memorandum in support of the plea deal.
While the Defendant seems to have gotten a “great deal”, it is John’s benefits from the deal that has people wondering about the fairness of the prosecution. Detractors of the deal question whether it is fair that John, who got into this mess by breaking the law (engaging a prostitute is illegal and, in fact, such clients are often identified and ridiculed by various local media), be the recipient of such hoop-jumping treatment by the federal prosecutors, complete with gag order
Several legal specialists are complaining that this that this case illustrates how a prosperous individual with high-level connections can marshal the formidable resources of federal law enforcement to turn the tables on a criminal and preserve his good name – even if he himself had repeatedly broken the law by paying for sex. In contrast, the alleged prostitute’s name is all over court records and the press.
“Why should he be given any type of preferential treatment?” said one defense lawyer critical of the deference shown the businessman. “I’m sure there are many other victims who don’t want their names publicized. And paying for sex is a crime in Massachusetts.”
Another Boston defense lawyer, called the case “an example of the system working better for people who have resources.” It is also, he said, an unfortunate result of what can happen when the courts and media identify every adult who is arrested without regard to their reputations but withholds the identity of some complainants because of such concerns.
Other veteran criminal lawyers said, however, that the prosecutors’ studious efforts to keep the businessman’s identity secret were justified because the government wants to encourage other people to come forward if they are victims of similar extortion schemes.
“They’ve done a balancing act here,” said one such defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. “And society’s interest in removing the market for extortion has been viewed as far more important and significant than the everyday concerns about prostitution.”
Stern and his former colleagues in the US attorney’s office have cited the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 to justify keeping the man’s name a secret. The law says victims have the right “to be treated with fairness and respect for [their] dignity and privacy,” although it does not specify that their names must be kept secret.
Stern and prosecutors invoked the law even though the man is not purely a victim and even though some city police departments, in a crackdown on prostitution, have gone so far as to shame customers by posting their names in newspapers and on the Web, billboards, and television.
Attorney Sam’s Take:
The withholding of a complainant’s name, in itself, is not unheard of. It is done quite often, although usually in matters involving Massachusetts juveniles and sexual assault cases.
As discussed in Part One of this story, people, particularly those familiar with the criminal justice system, should not be shocked at the deal given to John. While it is indeed unusual for the complaining witness’s name to be made secret as part of the deal, agreements are made all the time between prosecutors and witnesses in which the witnesses profit in one way or another…particularly in the way of not being prosecuted.
Such deals are usually made by prosecutors while balancing the crimes involved. In this case prostitution (a crime with which federal prosecutors seldom dirty their hands) is considered much less a threat to society than extortion, a felony. Extortion is a white collar version of robbery. Of course, the Defendant here was not specifically charged with extortion, was she?
And there lies the rub.
The federal prosecutors went out of their way to make this a federal offense, as described more fully in Part One. Such actions are, in themselves, not unheard of, but usually done because the United States Attorney is after some “big fish”. In this case, while her criminal record is not known, there is nothing to indicate that the Defendant is such a fish. In fact, given the sentence, there is every reason to believe she is hardly a community threat.
So why, other than John’s particular pull did the federal prosecutors get involved? A question, I am sure, for greater minds than mine. It is a bit questionable, though, as to what message the feds are indeed sending here. While claiming to send the “we will protect you from extortion” message to potential victims, they are also sending a message to potential extortionists too.
The message? Maybe something along the lines of, “Go ahead and do it. If we get involved, we will make whatever deal necessary to keep your mouth closed”.
Hmm. Sounds alot like the type of deal she was making in the first place, doesn’t it?
NOTE: As mentioned above, no Boston Criminal Lawyer Blog was posted last Thursday or Friday because of internet problems while I was out of state. Sorry about that. I will try to be extra interesting this week.
The full articles of this story can be found at: : http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1153372, http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1153583 , http://www.boston.com/yourtown/newton/articles/2009/02/17/paid_sex_then_threats_bring_id_debate/ and http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2009/02/20/how-far-should-prosecutors-go-to-protect-the-identity-of-a-john/