World and Nation

U.S. Defends Use of Intrusive Tactics in Spitzer Investigation

The Justice Department used some of its most intrusive tactics against Eliot Spitzer, examining his financial records, eavesdropping on his phone calls and tailing him during its criminal investigation of the Emperor’s Club prostitution ring.

The scale and intensity of the investigation of Spitzer, then the governor of New York, seemed on its face to be a departure for the Justice Department, which aggressively investigates allegations of wrongdoing by public officials, but almost never investigates people who pay prostitutes for sex.

A review of recent federal cases shows that federal prosecutors go sparingly after owners and operators of prostitution enterprises, and usually only when millions of dollars are involved or there are aggravating circumstances, like human trafficking or child exploitation.

Government lawyers and investigators defend the expenditure of resources on Spitzer in the Emperor’s Club VIP case as justifiable and necessary since it involved the possibility of criminal wrongdoing by New York’s highest elected official, who had been the state’s top prosecutor.

Bradley D. Simon, a veteran Justice Department trial lawyer who was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn throughout the 1990s, said that although it was rare for the department to use so many resources on the workings of a prostitution ring, the involvement of such a high-level politician must change the equation.

“If they’ve got some evidence of a high-ranking public official involved in violations of federal criminal code, it may not be unreasonable for them to pursue it,” he said. Still, he said, “I don’t think prostitution has been a high priority at the Justice Department.”

The focus on Spitzer was so intense that the FBI used surveillance teams to follow both him and the prostitute in Washington in February. The surveillance teams had followed him at least once before — when he visited the city in January but did not engage a prostitute, officials said, confirming a report in The Washington Post. Stakeouts and surveillance are labor-intensive and often involve teams of a dozen or more agents and nonagent specialists.

An affidavit filed in the prostitution case did not identify Spitzer by name, only as Client 9, but it provided far more detail, some of it unusually explicit, about Client 9’s encounter with the prostitute than about any of the nine other clients identified by number in the document.

Government officials, including several who have been briefed on details of the case but declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to discuss a continuing inquiry, said there was no alternative but to look into Spitzer’s activities once investigators began examining reports of suspicious transactions that banks filed with the Treasury Department. Those reports suggested to investigators that Spitzer might have been trying to keep anyone from noticing transfers of his own funds. That is the kind of activity that can bring an investigation of the possibility of corruption.