Joan Vennochi

Score another for the old boy network

By Joan Vennochi
February 19, 2009
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COULD THE average John expect similar treatment?

A prominent, married businessman from the Boston area who is in his 60s wanted a "last hurrah" - sex with a young woman. But as the Globe's Jonathan Saltzman reported, one encounter with a 27-year-old prostitute from Canton led to others, which took place over a period of 18 months.

After the liaisons ended, the woman demanded money. He paid her twice - $80,000 in cash outside a Newton hotel and another $200,000 outside a Costco in Dedham. When she demanded $300,000 more, he hired a prominent Boston lawyer, former US attorney Donald K. Stern.

In the end, the woman was charged with extortion and named in court records. But through it all, the businessman's identity and good name were protected.

Would prosecutors be so concerned about a less prominent man's reputation?

This is a case of the old boy network protecting an old boy.

Usually, there's a different double standard in play: The man is protected, not the woman, when sex brings them together and then trips them up. This situation is much more complicated: The guy gets his "last hurrah." She is outed by name. He remains anonymous. But because the woman allegedly extorted money, she is not a sympathetic character and deserves prosecution.

The businessman was able to hire Stern, a former federal prosecutor with considerable influence in the federal justice system. An accommodating FBI agent and a prosecutor working for US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan came to Stern's office on the 46th floor of the Prudential Tower to meet with his client. Then, the FBI arranged to have the businessman tape-record a series of phones calls to the prostitute, including one made from Providence. Since the phone call crossed state lines, that ensured the prostitute's alleged extortion demand was a federal crime.

As part of her lawyer's deal-making with prosecutors, the woman agreed not to disclose her client's name. She was expected to plead guilty in court to wire fraud and threats in interstate communications and accept an exceptionally lenient sentence: six months in jail, with credit for six months she has already served, in exchange for secrecy.

Yesterday, however, the chief judge of the US District Court in Boston, Mark L. Wolf, questioned such leniency, ordering prosecutors to justify a sentencing deal that would free her immediately.

Except for victims of rape and sexual assault, law enforcement officials routinely identify victims of crime. Some police departments even shame customers of prostitutes by posting their names in newspapers, on television, and on the Web.

Yet here, the system seemed to be bending over backwards to shield one individual: the one with connections - and enough money to pay Stern's fees.

James L. Sultan, a Boston defense lawyer, describes it as "a slippery slope," and told the Globe that the case is "an example of the system working better for people who have resources."

"Who gets to be the anonymity police?" asked Sultan.

It's a good question, given that adults charged with a crime are always named.

Prosecution is often described as a blunt instrument. When prosecutors take up a case, there is little mercy or thought to the reputations of the accused. The legal precept of innocent until proven guilty frequently turns into a joke. That is the price for a society that values transparency over mystery, as evidenced by an open court system.

Yet that same system can choose to protect the identity of complainants, on a subjective, case-by-case basis.

Some lawyers defend the outcome in this case as a way to encourage extortion victims to come forward, because extortion is a greater harm to society than prostitution.

In a memorandum to the court opposing disclosure of his client's name, Stern wrote that anonymity "strikes a balance between his right to privacy and the public's right to act as a check on the criminal justice system."

But, would the same balance hold if this were a less-connected man, caught in the same ugly trap that he set for himself?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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