Escort boss in Spitzer scandal gets prison

February 6, 2009 4:58:28 PM PST
The boss of the prostitution ring that ensnared former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was sentenced on Friday to 2 1/2 years in prison, the toughest penalty anyone is likely to serve in the scandal. Mark Brener, 63, gray-haired and balding, apologized to the court before learning his fate. He pleaded guilty last year to two conspiracy counts involving prostitution and money laundering.

His lawyer portrayed the rumpled former tax consultant as a lifelong loser, who bumbled into the sex trade and committed a "victimless crime" after failing in business and losing his wife to cancer.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin was unmoved.

"I certainly don't think that prostitution is a victimless crime," the judge said. "It may go on all the time. ... But it's certainly my view that a lot of people are significantly hurt by this."

Spitzer's name was never uttered during the hearing, but Brener's lawyer, Murray Richman, said his client was clearly "collateral damage" in a probe that was originally aimed at the governor.

Investigators initially began looking into Spitzer's affairs after noticing unusual activity - later shown to be payments to prostitutes - in the governor's bank accounts.

Prosecutors had asked for a prison term of at least two years for the man they said was the "driving force" behind the Emperors Club VIP, a lucrative escort service that employed prostitutes in New York, Miami and Europe.

When Brener was arrested, agents found nearly $1 million in cash stashed in his apartment in Cliffside Park, N.J.

His high-paying customers included Spitzer, referred to in court papers as "Client-9." He resigned March 12 after the details of a tryst with one of Brener's call girls in a Washington, D.C., hotel were revealed publicly.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Brener was born in Russia, then moved as a young man to Israel, where he served in the armed forces and got a master's degree in business. Later he emigrated to the United States with his wife and son and became a tax consultant.

The details of how Brener made the shift from tax work to prostituting young women are still unclear, but Richman suggested yesterday his client had become "rudderless" after the death of his wife in 1997 left him traumatized and deep in debt.

"All his life, he's been totally unsuccessful in everything he's done," he said, noting that his client's tax business had not done well, leaving his wife as the main breadwinner. "He couldn't find himself. He was confused."

Eventually Brener remarried, divorced, and then in 2004 took a college student as a girlfriend. That woman, Cecil Suwal, eventually assumed the day-to-day task of managing the escort service.

Suwal's lawyers said her aging companion exercised a cruel degree of psychological control over the young woman, who had the words "Property of Mark Brener" tattooed on her body.

But Richman suggested that Suwal was more in control than she let on, saying he was too disorganized to run the business himself.

"He is not an evil person. He is a good person who's done a bad thing."

Chin appeared put off by the attempt to deflect some blame on Suwal, who was barely out of her teens when she became involved in the business.

"No matter how bright she was, no matter how organized she was, she was a victim, as well," Chin said.

Brener has been in jail since his arrest last March, meaning he has already served 11 months of his sentence. He will serve two years on probation after his release. Chin also ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine.

Prosecutors announced in November that they wouldn't bring charges against Spitzer.

The small group of women who helped Brener run the operation have been treated relatively leniently by the court. Suwal was sentenced last month to six months in jail. Tanya Hollander, who had worked as a booking agent for the service, got a year's probation. One more defendant, the booking agent Temeka Lewis, has yet to be sentenced.

None of the prostitutes faced charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Stein suggested in a court filing that those women had, in fact, been "victimized" by the ring - a sentiment he expanded during Friday's court session.

"We're all the victims," he said.