What’s the Going Price for the Rule of Law?

Bostonians were entertained this past week by a bizarre news story about a prominent, wealthy  – and married – businessman in his sixties out for a “last hurrah” (his words), who had spent a year and a half engaging the services of a young prostitute, and who had then begun paying hush money to the woman when she threatened to go public with the details of their relationship. This charming fellow had had quite enough by the time the woman made her third demand for cash, and so he hired a high-powered lawyer to secure the assistance of the authorities in entrapping the woman in the act of committing blackmail.

The bizarre thing is that the prosecutors appear to have made protecting this criminal businessman their top priority in the case. Firstly, of course, they set up a sting to trap the woman accepting what she thought was another payoff – protecting him financially from continued extortion. Clearly, that’s righteous enough. Having accomplished that, however, their primary concern as the case proceeded appears to have been to guarantee the anonymity of this man who had begun the whole sordid affair.

If this is not a case of bald favoritism toward some well-connected wealthy guy (which would be bad enough), then it is a troubling display of lack of respect for the rule of law at an even more fundamental level. That the guilty businessman wants to keep his identity hidden is no surprise, but that the government would not only accept the validity of his wish, but make it the centerpiece of its concern, is astonishing. The fact that this man is guilty, not only of soliciting a prostitute, but of paying bribes to conceal his crimes, seems to have become lost here.

The prosecutor claimed that protecting the man’s anonymity was important to maintaining an atmosphere that encourages extortion victims to come forward without fear of public humiliation, but why is this guy’s criminal character being glossed over in order to paint him as a victim? That seems grossly simplistic, if not disingenuous. Protecting innocents from the fallout of their victimization is certainly a noble aim, but why are the prosecutors concerned that the potential for public disgrace might discourage criminals from coming forward to report colleagues trying to blackmail them? Why not let them swing in the breeze to choose between coming clean to the law, or digging themselves an ever deeper hole by knuckling under to extortion? How about we instead use the influencing capacity of public disgrace to actually discourage people from committing crimes like soliciting prostitutes (and paying bribes) to begin with?

I think I prefer a society that promotes the living of a virtuous life as the proper means of maintaining a good public reputation, rather than one that offers to secure a good name through the ratting out of one’s criminal co-conspirators before they rat you out. Victim, my foot. I was admittedly not surprised when, by the end of the week, US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf had somehow come to grips with those concerns that troubled me, and had adopted the logic of the government:

"While that businessperson created his own vulnerability, he is nevertheless a victim," said Wolf. He added that the man deserves the protections of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, which says victims have the right to be treated with "fairness and respect for [their dignity] and privacy.”

Created his own vulnerability? That’s a quaint way of putting things.

To his credit, Judge Wolf initially questioned the propriety of the government’s sentencing recommendation, which was essentially time served (the woman, apparently without means to make bail, has been jailed since August). Such skepticism was short-lived, however, and he soon acquiesced, citing the defense counsel’s assertion that the woman had “suffered enough,” having lost both her home, and custody of her daughter, while incarcerated. I have no gripe with a light sentence for this most powerless character in this affair, but I have my doubts that this decision, or any other in this matter, had her good in mind.

The prosecution really made no bones about it: they didn’t want the case to go to trial, because their primary concern was protecting the anonymity of the adulterous old bribe payer. And he got exactly what he wanted: the probation terms include a gag rule on the woman for the extent (three years) of the probation, which prohibits her from naming him. Incredibly, the government cut a deal with her in return for her silence, which is the very arrangement she was guilty of perpetrating. And the silence bought from her, on the other hand, is the public identification of criminal activity, which reason would suggest would be her civic duty to reveal! The State’s interest in this is what, exactly?

The only ray of light in all of this is that the probation period (hence the duration of the gag rule) is only three years, at which point she would seem to be legally free to name names. It’s entirely possible, of course, that she will continue to be surreptitiously rolled by the system, while our well-heeled fornicating philanthropist is out paying off even younger hookers to fill the empty, hidden shadows of his shame-filled life, but she may just have an opportunity to finally return the favor of his favors. Perhaps he’ll approach her and offer to buy her continued silence, and perhaps – instead of taking it – she’ll turn him in. I smell a rat.