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3/6/2008

VICTORY!
The inside story of the MBI's latest crusade ... against us

 

(Editor's note - This story was first published on Feb. 27, 2008, and updated on Feb. 29, 2008)

On Feb. 27, the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation dropped all charges of racketeering against Orlando Weekly , and accepted pretrial diversion ­– adjudication withheld and charges ultimately dropped – against the three employees it accused of aiding and abetting prostitution and deriving income from prostitution. In exchange, the Orlando Weekly agreed to reimburse the MBI $10,000 for its investigation, drop its ads for escort services and issue a statement that says three classified advertising employees – Brian Martin, Matt Whiting and Kate Miller – violated company policy by accepting advertisements from undercover MBI agents posing as prostitutes.

Thus ended the agency’s two-year investigation dubbed “Operation Weekly Shame.”

If you didn’t know better, or you watch local TV news, you’d think the MBI got their man. Indeed, that’s how they spun it.

“Everything that needed to be done has been done,” said MBI director Bill Lutz at a Feb. 27 news conference announcing the settlement. “They actually did more than we asked.”

But think back to Oct. 19, when the MBI made a very public show of “Operation Weekly Shame,” going so far as to arrest Weekly employees at an off-site job fair and tipping off TV reporters beforehand. Back then, you’ll recall, the MBI characterized Orlando Weekly as a criminal organization, akin to the mob, that had pocketed more than $2 million in illegal revenue by selling ads to hookers. The paper preyed on the community, they said in front of the cameras, and nourished a culture of vice with ads for sex available nowhere else in Orlando. MBI commander Paul Zambouros told one local TV station that the paper was “sort of a broker for prostitutes.”

An organization that dangerous and criminal warrants heavy-duty charges. And that’s what the MBI brought. They charged the paper with violating state RICO (racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations) laws and the felony of deriving support from prostitution, and collectively charged Miller, Martin and Whiting with the same felony and 16 misdemeanor charges of aiding and abetting prostitution.

What they settled for, out of court, were dropped charges and concessions befitting someone nailed for reckless driving. How Orlando’s morality police went from fangs bared to tail between their legs is an old story, one the Weekly has written extensively. It goes like this: The MBI is vindictive and answerable to no one. Its managers don’t know the law. It wastes thousands of tax dollars on undercover investigations that produce few results.

The Weekly wrote those stories. The MBI came after the paper with charges serious enough to put it out of business. The charges were dropped and the case was settled out of court. You decide who won.

One advantage of being the target of an MBI investigation is the opportunity to get an agonizingly close perspective on how the agency really works. Thanks to roughly 1,000 pages of depositions of the MBI agents involved in the case and other documents, we got that perspective. It wasn’t pretty.

THE INVESTIGATION

According to his Feb. 4 deposition, MBI Director Bill Lutz reads Orlando Weekly every week to stay on top of what the paper writes about his agency, so he can prepare himself for inquiries from other media. In late September 2005, Lutz read a cover story published by this newspaper called “Operation Overexposed,” which examined the alleged misdeeds of two of his undercover agents inside the adult nightclub Cleo’s. According to the club’s dancers – some of whom were targeted in that five-month, $27,562 investigation – agents James McGriff and James Carlies Jr. groped dancers and blew on their vaginas. One of the agents exposed himself, they later testified. Though the dancers who made the accusations passed polygraph tests, the Orlando Police Department’s internal affairs investigators cleared Carlies and McGriff. The dancers pressed their case to the Citizens Police Review Board, which asked OPD to reopen the case. OPD declined.

The article made the rounds at the MBI’s downtown offices. MBI agent Sgt. Samuel Riggi Jr. said in his deposition that “when the articles on Agent Carlies and Agent McGriff [came out] I know [the MBI] would have some discussion then.”

About two months later, MBI agents made their first undercover visit to the Weekly’s office. By then, Lutz had already coined the investigation’s name: “Operation Weekly Shame.” In his deposition, Lutz said he found the selling of such escort ads morally repugnant. “It’s just wrong,” he said. The operation’s name, he explained, stemmed from the idea that the Weekly was worthy of shame for profiting from alleged illegal activities.

On Dec. 6, 2005, MBI agent Cynthia Meinke called the paper about an escort ad. She spoke with classified ad representative Matt Whiting. Two days later, Meinke and fellow agent Lashon Goins met Whiting in person. They asked about running a line ad containing the phrase “happy endings.” Whiting said he couldn’t do that, adding “but we can, you know, we can allude to it.”

During that conversation, Meinke and Goins offered to have sex with Whiting in exchange for a reduced ad rate. He turned them down. Their ad, which ran in the Dec. 15, 2005, issue of Orlando Weekly , advertised “carmel skinned beauties” and a “full service sensual massage.” It cost $80.

On Dec. 19, 2005, Goins returned to renew the ad. She said her partner had been arrested: “Well, you know she thought she was just going to give him a good blow job and it turned out to be the police ….” Goins said she needed to be cautious: “I need to make sure that it don’t say, um, ‘Police come get me, like you did Sylvia,’” she told Whiting, referring to the fake name used by Meinke. Goins gave Whiting $160 to run the new ad for two weeks.

And on it went. Throughout 2006 and the first four months of 2007, undercover MBI agents stopped by our office at least 22 times and paid to run the escort ads, according to MBI records. The last visit came on April 17. Sometimes they talked with ad representatives at length, sometimes they paid and left.

MBI agents photographed a list of dos and don’ts posted in Whiting’s cubicle. Titled “Ad Text Must Not Convey Sex,” the document instructed ad representatives to avoid specific words.

They pushed hard to get classified staffers to sell them explicit ads for sex. On Oct. 20, 2006, MBI agent Christina Hopkins – posing under the name “Courtney” – met with classified advertising director Brian Martin to place an ad. Hopkins said she was having trouble figuring out what her ad should say.

“Basically, and I don’t want to be too curt, you know, but I want to make it known, you know, what we’re doing here,” she told him.

“It’s kind of hard,” Martin responded. “I mean, um, I really don’t want to know that info and I can’t put anything in the ad that insinuates full service or anything like that.”

Hopkins told Martin she wanted “to do something a little more risqué.”

“I can’t really do that,” Martin replied.

“What can we put that will definitely let people know that this isn’t just a date,” Hopkins said. “You know what I mean?”

“Right.”

“Like, I obviously want to be selling sex here without, you know – obviously, I want to go as far as we can,” Hopkins said.

Toward the end of the conversation, Martin told Hopkins that the classified section “only got good when I got here.”

“What, you had to clean it up? Make it run good, make good money?”

“Or dirty it up,” Martin replied.

In his deposition, Lutz referred to that quip repeatedly as proof that Martin and Weekly executives were complicit in prostitution. In fact, it constitutes virtually their entire case that the paper’s managers condoned such activity and is therefore a criminal organization. (Don Farley, group publisher for the Weekly’s parent company, Times-Shamrock Communications, says Martin was in fact hired to bolster the paper’s employment advertising section. “Brian had applied from the Dallas Observer . He had a midlevel management position in the classified department there. At that time the Dallas Observer was the leading alternative in the country as far as employment advertising.”)

On Dec. 1, 2006, nearly a year after MBI agents began placing ads in Orlando Weekly , “Courtney” got her first and only two hits, according to MBI records. Shortly after noon, Courtney – agent Hopkins – received voice mails from two men. She agreed to meet them at the Peabody Hotel on International Drive at 4 p.m.

That meeting was a sting, and both prospective johns were arrested. MBI lawyers dropped charges against the two after they admitted that they saw the ad in the Weekly .

THE TAKEDOWN

On March 29, 2007, the MBI issued a subpoena to the Weekly demanding records related to 45 advertisements that had appeared since November 2005. That same day, MBI commander Zambouros wrote a letter to Weekly publisher Rick Schreiber.

“Over the past 28 years, since the MBI’s inception, agents with the vice/organized crime section have conducted hundreds of investigations involving the escort service industry,” he wrote. “These investigations have disclosed that the escort service industry in Central Florida routinely engages in racketeering, money laundering and prostitution. Escort service businesses operating in the Central Florida area presently rely heavily on advertising in the Adult Services section of the Orlando Weekly to further their illegal activities.”

Orlando Weekly replied by sending the MBI records for 31 of the 45 requested advertisers; the records for the other 14 had already been purged. (In fact, the paper has a long-standing policy of cooperating with all law enforcement agencies, the MBI included, in weeding out problem advertisers. “We have a policy not to allow any ads that promote illegal activities,” says Weekly publisher Rick Schreiber.)

On June 1, Zambouros wrote to Farley, complaining that Schreiber had not responded to his communiqués, other than complying with the subpoena. He noted the MBI’s estimation that the Weekly had earned just shy of $2.4 million off massage and escort ads over the last five years, and accused the paper of reneging on a deal it made a decade earlier not to run the ads. ( Orlando Weekly was owned by another company at the time, and none of its current managers worked for the paper.) For the first time, Zambouros raised the possibility of racketeering charges against the paper.

According to the MBI, in a phone call Farley told Zambouros that the Weekly had provided all necessary documents, and stated that he would take no further action. Farley also questioned Zambouros’ assumption that all clients advertising in the adult services section were prostitutes.

On Aug. 8, the MBI sent a second subpoena for records related to 25 more advertisements. Once again, the Weekly complied and provided the requested information.

In depositions, both Lutz and Zambouros referred to these communications with the Weekly as evidence that the arrests weren’t retaliation for stories written about the agency.

“[Farley] told me basically what we were doing was we didn’t like the press that the Orlando Weekly was writing about the MBI,” Zambouros said in his deposition. “I assured him that was not the case.”

The MBI waited six months from its last visit to take its case to the grand jury, which indicted this company and its three employees Oct. 17, 2007. Two days later, the MBI arrested the employees at the Orlando Marriott Downtown during a company-sponsored job fair that featured such companies as Disney and the U.S. Army, and which had been advertised in this paper for weeks in advance.

Riggi, who is assigned to the MBI’s vice unit, insisted in a deposition that the arrests weren’t staged to humiliate the paper. Lutz stated the arrests happened when they did because of a concern about the statute of limitations running out on one defendant, and where they did because that’s where the three targets were together.

“That made no difference to us where it was occurring,” Lutz said. “We finally located all three people together.”

MBI agents didn’t arrest the three. Instead, the MBI called in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s fugitive unit, which, as the name suggests, tracks down fugitives and those with arrest warrants. Though none of the three Weekly employees arrested had criminal records, five members of the fugitive unit – with bulletproof vests on and guns at the ready – walked into the job fair and hauled the three out in handcuffs before waiting media representatives.

Riggi assigned MBI agents to follow the three around the morning of their arrests. Agent James Edmunson was supposed to trail Martin from his Clermont home, but he never showed. Goins followed Miller from her downtown apartment. And agent Bryan Bonnano staked out Whiting.

The MBI could have asked the three to voluntarily surrender, a common practice with nonviolent offenders. Or they could have arrested the three at their homes or at work. After all, the MBI knew where they lived and what they looked like.

“Why didn’t Bonnano right then and there walk up to him in his car when Whiting was getting into his car and say, ‘Hey, there’s a warrant for your arrest and I’m going to arrest you?'” Orlando Weekly attorney Steve Mason asked Riggi in his deposition.

“He was by himself and typically we don’t make arrests of that nature by ourselves,” Riggi responded

According to Riggi, the MBI didn’t know about the job fair until that day, even though it had been advertised in the paper for weeks. But Lutz, in his deposition, said that embarrassing the Weekly is exactly what he had in mind, though he claimed that tactic wasn’t retaliatory.

“This is what we do in every racketeering case where a business is doing something wrong, the public has a right to know,” he said. “And we bring the press there. And generally these problems go away when it gets into the mainstream media that a business was doing something wrong.”

After the arrests, the three Weekly employees were taken in two police SUVs – Whiting and Martin in one, Miller in the other – to the Sheriff’s Office Sector 4 substation, where they met with Riggi and Edmunson in the parking lot. Once there, Riggi pressed them for information on their employer.

“I don’t think you’re rogue employees,” Riggi told Miller. He told Martin, “We’re not after you.” He told all three of them that this newspaper was going to at least fire them. The not-so-subtle implication was they were going down, and they might as well take the paper with them, says Martin.

“That’s exactly what they wanted,” he says.

THE LAW

The MBI claims that in the six years since Brian Martin was hired as the paper’s classified ad director, Orlando Weekly has made almost $2.4 million in illegal advertising. There’s a reason for making a show of the numbers: Under state racketeering laws, if the MBI won their case they could seize $2.4 million of the Weekly’s assets. Of that amount, they would be entitled to a 10 percent take.

“I don’t know if it would be hitting the lottery, but, yes, each member agency would get a percentage of whatever monies were settled in the outcome of the case, seized or forfeiture or however you want to word that,” noted Riggi in his deposition.

Lutz defended his agency’s prosecution against assertions by this paper and other media outlets that the charges were retribution for stories critical of the MBI. “I don’t see this as a First Amendment issue,” he told the Orlando Sentinel . “This is strictly an advertising company making money off of prostitution.”

As this newspaper reported Oct. 25, other publications – including Watermark, The Orlando Post , the Orlando Sentinel’s website and local phone books – also run ads for what appear to be escort services or sexually suggestive massage parlors. But none of those publications, Lutz said in his deposition, is “a widely distributed mechanism to support the prostitution industry. The Orlando Weekly is.”

Lutz said he wasn’t aware of a problem at any publication except the Weekly . “I know [those ads exist] because Orlando Weekly said they have it,” Lutz said in his deposition. “But I can tell you that it’s not something that we find a widely distributed mechanism that reaches the general population.”

Steve Mason, the attorney representing the Weekly employees, questioned Lutz in the deposition, hammering on the issue of reprisal: “In other words,” he said, “you’re just telling me absolutely that the fact that the Weekly has run pictures of your agents with their penis, talked about your agents having sex with prostitutes, talked about the bungling and the ineptitude of the MBI and how you arrest old grandmothers and scare them to death, and do every nasty thing for the last 30 years, that had nothing to do with the arrests and [it was] because the Orlando Weekly is the source of all prostitution and all these people that spend thousands of dollars in all of these other publications, that doesn’t amount to anything?”

“You’re asserting something that’s not the truth,” Lutz replied.

Whether or not this case is retaliation is ultimately unknowable, except in the minds of the cops who brought it. What is a fact is that the law they used to create their case was never designed to punish publications for selling ads. It was written, and then amended, to give cops the power to bust pimps.

And the MBI should have known that, because they helped write it.

The racketeering charge brought against the paper is built upon two other laws the MBI claims the paper broke: one that makes it unlawful for a person to derive income from the proceeds of prostitution, and another that makes it illegal to aid and abet prostitution.

The law that makes it illegal to derive income from prostitution was first passed in 1943. In 1981, cops from around the state complained that it was weak and vague. It was beefed up to a felony to crack down on pimping. But because the law required that a defendant had to “live off the earnings” of a prostitute, there was a high burden of proof. In 1987, then-state Rep. Richard Crotty – now Orange County’s mayor – introduced a bill at the MBI’s prodding to remedy the situation. His initial language read: “Anyone receiving money or other thing of value with knowledge or reasonable cause to believe that the money or other thing of value is derived from prostitution is guilty of a felony of the third degree.”

But legislative staffers worried that the language was too broad and that it could be used against anyone who sold anything to a person he knew was a prostitute. Then-MBI legal counsel Joseph Cocchiarella – who in recent weeks returned to his job and was handling the prosecution of the Weekly – was sympathetic to that issue. “We don’t want to arrest 7-Eleven clerks for selling things to prostitutes,” he said at the time. “All we want is a law where we don’t have to keep these [undercover] officers with somebody long enough to prove they’re living off the earnings and we can actually go after people who are pimps ….”

Cocchiarella defined “pimps” thusly: “[T]he person who recruits the prostitutes and actually promotes prostitution in our community.” It would be a stretch, even for the MBI, to get Orlando Weekly to fit that definition.

In 1987 the MBI wanted pimps, not vendors. In 2005, they changed their mind and went after a vendor, one that – coincidentally, if you believe the MBI – has been very critical of the way the agency operates.

As noted in several depositions, MBI agents who worked the case had wildly diverging notions of what law the paper was supposed to have violated. By the end of investigation, even the MBI had come to admit that the ads that appeared in the Weekly did not violate any Florida law.

As Mason pointed out in questioning, there is nothing in state statutes that forbids a publication from selling ads to someone, even if the publication knows that person is a prostitute.

“Those ads you are pointing to, do you think those ads are illegal?” Mason asked MBI director Lutz.

“On the surface, they are not illegal,” Lutz said. “But we all know exactly what it was. I think every 16-year-old boy knows what these are.” He added, “I've explained to you that we used the totality of the circumstances to justify this as a crime.”

At another point in Lutz’s testimony, Mason asked him to put his finger on the exact subsection of the state’s aiding-and-abetting statute the Weekly had violated.

“All right. Let me sit and read the law here,” Lutz replied.

“The legislature has amended that thing many times to encompass things that they thought of being a crime. You know, it’s called legislative history,” Mason said.

“My answer would be this as a legal decision made by our general counsel. Our general counsel should respond to that question.”

“So you can’t tell me what subsection or you can’t or you won’t?”

“I would rely on general counsel to find the exact charges for the conduct that was occurring.”

“Do you see anything in there about knowingly accepting advertising?”

“I’m not an attorney, Lutz said. “The general counsel is the one that would respond to that question.”

It’s no coincidence that the MBI agreed to settle when they did. The Orlando Weekly had a scheduled motion-to-dismiss hearing Feb. 27, based on the idea that nothing in Florida law prohibits anyone from running ads for prostitutes. It’s impossible to break a law that doesn’t exist, Mason would have argued, no matter how much police wish it did.

On Feb. 26, as negotiations between the MBI and Orlando Weekly wrapped up, Cocchiarella filed a response to the paper’s motion to dismiss. In it, he argued that the U.S. Supreme Court allows governments to regulate advertising. He also argued that the court should interpret the statutory language as written ­– even if that contradicts the legislative intent – and as such, his 1987 statement that the law was only intended to go after pimps should be overlooked.

SETTLED

The MBI got what it claims it wanted: an end to the adult services advertising in the Weekly . But that claim was made public only after the agency realized it stood a very good chance of losing the case entirely. Only as recently as Feb. 27, at the press conference announcing the settlement, has Lutz conceded that the same ads are available in other publications. (The MBI has contacted Craigslist about advertising for prostitution, but apparently dropped the matter immediately when the San Francisco–based company did not cooperate.)

Orlando Weekly also got what it wanted. “All charges were dropped,” says Schreiber. “I feel good about that. I felt it would happen all along. There is a sense of vindication in that.” The company agreed to pay for the MBI’s investigation because continuing it in a trial would not have been worthwhile given the offer on the table, he adds. “It was a matter of resolving the issue in the best interest of our employees and the paper.”

Even the editorial side of the paper got what it wanted: unfettered access to the inner workings of the MBI. Be careful what you wish for.

Additional reporting by Billy Manes, Deanna Sheffield and Bob Whitby

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