The collective breath of Washington D.C. is being held this weekend. Not over Iraq and its vicissitudes. Not over Iran and its vagaries. Not over Congress and its overriding impulses. Not over Anna Nicole’s baby coming to Kentucky. Not over the Derby coming to Kentucky. Not over the one-eyed horse coming to the Derby coming to Kentucky. Not even over the Queen of England coming to the one-eyed horse coming to the Derby coming to Kentucky.
Over the D.C. Madam naming names on ABC’s 20/20 show Friday night.
Being of the human persuasion myself, I share the curiosity. Nor do I bring any fear of exposure; my phone number is on the list only because I misdialed The American Spectator, a matter we cleared up amicably in eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds. Still, I am opposed to this release of personal information. Almost as opposed as I am to the federal legal maneuvers which have brought us to this pretty pass. (Actually, an escort is someone you hire when you would rather do a handoff than a pass.)
What happened here is the Feds froze her assets before prosecuting her. The IRS claims some for taxes. And by prosecuting her for racketeering instead of simple prostitution, they can use RICO laws to confiscate her money under the presumption they are ill-gotten gains. The cumulative effect of pulling these fast ones on an alleged perpetrator is to empty her wallet so she cannot afford a proper defense. Which, bottom line, is a dirty trick.
This power was put into law to prevent mobsters from buying their way out of trouble with high-powered legal teams. But those people are adept at hiding their property and find ways to afford the lawyers. The confiscation law now is mainly used against drug dealers, who often are apprehended with large sums of cash, particularly if law enforcement can interrupt a major transaction. This is already a stretch of the racketeering statute. To extend it now into a simple call-girl operation is disingenuous baloney.
Incidentally, when I lived in Cincinnati in the ’90s I saw first hand the abuses perpetrated under this system. There had been a public complaint by the local police to the effect the DEA was conducting drug raids without their cooperation. This, they argued, was dangerous: What if police took the plain-clothes armed men for crooks and a firefight ensued? A rapprochement was reached and the DEA promised to bring local police along. My sources on the street explained what was going on. The agents would scoop up the cash in the dealer’s possession and divide it among themselves; the local cops wanted their piece of the action. The dealer couldn’t sue for his cash since it would go to the government in any case.
In the case of the madam, this has created a strange anomaly. On the prostitution charges she is stuck with a court-appointed attorney. But she has a good lawyer suing against the seizure of her assets, because he thinks he has a chance to win and take a contingency fee. All in all, this is very underhanded and overbearing behavior by the government.
Incidentally, this type of charge is often based on very fraudulent assumptions. Most municipalities allow escort services to operate, often with newspaper and Yellow Pages ads, on the proviso nothing erotic happens. They know the proprietors have limited control over what the individual escort actually does in the customer’s room. When they choose to prosecute it is easy to win because juries assume the worst. This creates the ideal environment for corruption, where the same service can be deemed legal or illegal at the whim of the police or district attorney.
The other side of this is quite wrong as well. To publicize the names of customers should be illegal in any business. Technically there is no bar to a merchant selling his list of purchasers, but this is an oversight in law and public policy. There should be an inherent confidentiality in every financial transaction that does not involve real estate or publicly held securities. The bakery should not be allowed to broadcast my preference for cheese Danishes any more than the doctor can trumpet my maladies.
We all recall the outrage on the right about checking Robert Bork’s and Clarence Thomas’ records of movie rentals. The left was similarly upset about the prospect the Patriot Act could be used to check people’s library reading. It is just as outrageous to announce that so-and-so called such-and-such a number of a service advertised as legal that may in fact have veered into the illegal. Very very wrong.
After all is said and done, no one here is terribly innocent, so it is difficult to ignite sympathy for one party or another. It is still sad to see that in this matter both sides seem to be playing… er, fast and loose.