What Were the Feds After?


This morning’s Washington Post suggests the FBI had been trying to catch Gov. Spitzer in the act for some time:

Weeks before a hotel meeting with a prostitute that threatens to derail his career, the FBI staked out New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer at the same hotel in an unsuccessful effort to catch him with a high-priced call girl, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.

The FBI placed a surveillance team on Spitzer at the Mayflower Hotel for the first time on Jan. 26, after concluding from a wiretapped conversation that he might try to meet with a prostitute when he traveled to Washington to attend a black-tie dinner, the source said Tuesday. …

The January stakeout at the Mayflower came roughly two weeks after a federal judge authorized investigators to intercept the escort service’s telephone calls and text messages.

A team of agents from New York and Washington was hurriedly dispatched to the hotel after an escort service employee was heard on a wiretap calling the front desk to say that flowers were being sent to Spitzer and wanting to confirm that he would be there, said a source knowledgeable about the investigation who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

Spitzer spent part of the day and evening at the hotel, but if he had a date from the escort service, the agents did not see her or she did not show up.

Spitzer was accompanied to Washington by members of his police detail, who were apparently unaware of the FBI surveillance even though an officer from the detail watched the governor’s room from across the hall, through a cracked door.

This dovetails in some respects with what a lawyer reader was pointing me toward last night — before the Post story came out. I yield the floor to TPM Reader BK:

But here is where it gets odd. The wire tap goes live toward the beginning of January. They listen in to numerous conversations between clients and the escort service owners/operators all through January and early February.

Judging from the affidavit, they obviously have more than enough to bust all four employees and numerous johns. But they don’t.

They sit on the wire until February 11, when Eliot Spitzer contacts the service. Importantly, the investigators would have known that Spitzer was a repeat user. So, if they bring charges in early February, they get the brothel owners, but they don’t get the big prize – the moralizing Governor of New York state.

Were they waiting for him? I don’t know. But look at the timing: Spitzer has his liason with the prostitute on February 12, and suddenly, the Feds wrap up their investigation. They file charges just three weeks later. They had their evidence.

This smells like they were sitting on the wire, knowing Spitzer was eventually going to call.

This thought had been rattling around in my head, too. Based on the financial transactions, the feds initially suspected some sort of scam against Spitzer or possibly his involvement in public corruption. But they quickly figured out this was about sex.

At that point, with the amount of money involved, they knew they had a high-dollar prostitution ring in their sights, and likely violations of money-laundering and tax laws. So it certainly made sense to continue the investigation. But the speed with which they brought charges after catching Spitzer in the act has puzzled me from the get-go.


David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.