The federal criminal investigation that has led to Eliot Spitzer's resignation as governor of New York illustrates the great dangers all Americans face from vague and open-ended sex and money-transaction statutes.
Federal law, if read broadly, criminalizes virtually all sexual encounters for which something of value has been given. Federal money-laundering statutes criminalize many entirely legitimate and conventional banking transactions. Congress enacted these laws to give federal prosecutors wide discretion in deciding which "bad guys" to go after.
Generally, wise and intelligent prosecutors use their discretion properly -- to target organized crime, terrorism, financial predation, exploitation of children and the like. But the very existence of these selectively enforced statutes poses grave dangers of abuse. They lie around like loaded guns waiting to be used against the enemies of politically motivated investigators, prosecutors and politicians.
There is no hard evidence that Eliot Spitzer was targeted for investigation, but the story of how he was caught does not ring entirely true to many experienced former prosecutors and current criminal lawyers. The New York Times reported that the revelations began with a routine tax inquiry by revenue agents "conducting a routine examination of suspicious financial transactions reported to them by banks." This investigation allegedly found "several unusual movements of cash involving the Governor of New York." But the movement of the amounts of cash required to pay prostitutes, even high-priced prostitutes over a long period of time, does not commonly generate a full-scale investigation....
Even if Mr. Spitzer's derelictions were serendipitously discovered as a result of routine, computerized examination of bank transactions, the dangers inherent in selective use of overbroad criminal statutes remain. Money laundering, structuring and related financial crimes are designed to ferret out organized crime, drug dealing, terrorism and large-scale financial manipulation. They were not enacted to give the federal government the power to inquire into the sexual or financial activities of men who move money in order to hide payments to prostitutes.
Once federal authorities concluded that the "suspicious financial transactions" attributed to Mr. Spitzer did not fit into any of the paradigms for which the statutes were enacted, they should have closed the investigation. It's simply none of the federal government's business that a man may have been moving his own money around in order to keep his wife in the dark about his private sexual peccadilloes...
In this case, if the serendipitous bank audit really led federal agents to Mr. Spitzer, and Mr. Spitzer led them to the Emperor's Club, and federal prosecutors really wanted to get the Club, they could easily have sent an undercover cop to pose as a john, instead of tapping phones and reading emails -- tactics designed to catch and embarrass Mr. Spitzer with his own recorded words, which could be, and were, leaked to the media. As this newspaper has reported: "It isn't clear why the FBI sought the wiretap warrant. Federal prostitution probes are exceedingly rare, lawyers say, except in cases involving organized-crime leaders or child abuse. Federal wiretaps are seldom used to make these cases . . ."
Lavrenti Beria, the head of Joseph Stalin's KGB, once quipped to his boss, "show me the man and I will find the crime." The Soviet Union was notorious for having accordion-like criminal laws that could be adjusted to fit almost any dissident target. The U.S. is a far cry from the Soviet Union, but our laws are dangerously overbroad.
Both Democrats and Republicans have targeted political adversaries over the years. The weapons of choice are almost always elastic criminal laws. And few laws are more elastic, and susceptible to abuse, than federal laws on money laundering and sex crimes. For the sake of all Americans, these laws should be narrowed and limited to predatory crimes with real victims.
-The Entrapment of Eliot, by ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ