Many publications (reason included) are feasting this week on the all-but-cooked political carcass of New York’s law-and-order governor, Eliot Spitzer. The crusading former attorney general was brought low by the New York Times’ revelation yesterday afternoon that federal wiretaps caught him allegedly arranging an assignation with an overpriced prostitute last month at a Washington hotel. (When news of the underlying federal investigation broke last week, The Smoking Gun website posted screen grabs of the service’s web page, including photos of alleged talent and a price list that ran up to $3,100 an hour.)
If the allegations are true (and Spitzer’s statement that he “acted in a way that violates my obligation to my family” certainly sounds like an admission), the governor’s hypocrisy—and his belief that there is one set of laws for the little people and another set for Great Men like himself—is obvious. As attorney general and leader of the state's organized crime task force, Spitzer spearheaded the prosecution of two alleged prostitution rings, according to the Times.
But Spitzer’s moralistic crusade against paid sex (by non-Spitzers, at least) wasn’t confined to New York or even the United States of America. As far as Spitzer is concerned, he has the right to prevent people from exchanging cash for cuddles anywhere in the world.
Big Apple Oriental Tours was a Queens-based travel agency with an angle: it marketed vacations for men to destinations such as Angeles City, Philippines, a jurisdiction in which adult prostitution is nominally illegal but is condoned and regulated by the government because of the money it brings in. The militant feminist group Equality Now had been agitating for prosecution of Big Apple Oriental Tours since at least 1996, but had never found a prosecutor willing to take the case. (Big Apple Oriental Tours has never been linked to child prostitution, which would be another matter entirely.)
In 2003, attorney general Spitzer, with one eye on the feminist vote and the other on the governor’s mansion, commenced a campaign of legal harassment against the tour company, obtaining a civil injunction prohibiting the company from advertising, which effectively put it out of business, according to owner Norman Barabash.
Spitzer then brought criminal proceedings against Barabash and co-owner Douglas Allen that continue to this day. The first indictment was dismissed because prosecutors improperly relied upon a hearsay tape recording. The second indictment was dismissed because the facts alleged did not constitute a felony, leaving only a misdemeanor charge of promoting prostitution in the fourth degree, a crime so penny-ante it applies to doormen or bouncers. The third indictment was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, according to Barabash, and is currently before the appellate court. After all that harassment, there's been no trial.
While Spitzer’s crusade may seem overzealous and, based on what we now know, disturbingly Freudian, his attempt to apply domestic laws to conduct outside the country isn’t that far outside the current legal mainstream. The mother of all extraterritorial laws, the 1977 U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to bribe a foreign official, regardless of where the bribery took place.
Libertarians are understandably of two minds about L’Affaire Spitzer. On the one hand, a dedicated public servant will probably lose his job, and may be indicted, due to consensual liaisons and payments that should be a private matter completely outside the ambit of Justice Department wiretaps. On the other hand, Spitzer’s been hoisted by the moralistic petard that he can regulate any and all sexual behavior with which he disagrees, wherever it occurs. As Barabash said Monday, “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
Paul Karl Lukacs is a Los Angeles attorney who blogs about foreign affairs and travel at Knife Tricks.