Authorities have yet to publicly identify the politicians and other elite customers who allegedly paid for sex at brothels in Cambridge, Watertown, and the Washington, D.C., suburbs, but the prosecution of the interstate prostitution case will test whether the legal system has evolved in how it treats buyers and sellers in the sex trade.
On Thursday, one day after three people were arrested on federal charges for allegedly operating a ring that catered to a wealthy and well-connected clientele, authorities would not rule out either federal or state charges against hundreds of men who bought sex.
Among that group, federal authorities have said, are elected officials, military officers, business executives, lawyers, doctors, and government contractors with security clearances.
“We are working closely with our state and local partners and it is very much an ongoing investigation,” a spokesperson for the US attorney’s office said.
Federal authorities said the trafficked women were predominantly Asian and were moved around the country and “exploited.” None of them have been charged.
“When are we going to hold these buyers accountable?” said Audrey Morrissey, a former sex worker in what was then Boston’s “Combat Zone” area who now serves as co-executive director at My Life My Choice, a survivor advocacy group. “If people didn’t buy people, then people wouldn’t have the ability to sell people.”
Both sex work and the law-enforcement approach to it have changed over the past few decades, advocates such as Morrissey and attorneys say. The work itself has moved from interactions starting on the street to internet-driven rendezvous in out-of-the-way apartments, they say, and the criminal justice system has made strides toward becoming less punitive of prostitutes.
“It’s an evolution that we’ve seen over time,” said Elizabeth Keeley, former chief of the Massachusetts attorney general’s human trafficking division. “To some extent, perceptions have changed.”
Keeley said law enforcement has begun to view the women, who are typically exploited, “more as victims rather than perpetrators themselves.”
Still, from July 2018 through June of this year, nearly twice as many charges were filed against people for selling sex than were filed against those accused of paying for it, state court data shows. A review of state court records lists 969 charges filed in district and superior courts for selling sex for a fee, or being a “nightwalker” or “streetwalker.” During the same period, 535 charges were filed against people for paying for sex from an adult or a minor.
While there is debate about whether arresting buyers cuts down on the exploitative sex trade, “not arresting them at all completely sanctions their behavior,” said Amy Farrell, the director of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology & Criminal Justice. “It’s not fair to arrest sellers but not buyers.”
This week, acting US attorney Joshua Levy captured national attention when he disclosed the professions — but not the names — of those suspected of patronizing the brothels. Clients were required to identify their employers and provide references as part of an intensive verification process, according to court filings. Customers were charged up to $600 an hour, and in some cases purchased monthly memberships, according to the filings.
Han “Hana” Lee, 41, of Cambridge, is accused of being the leader of the interstate prostitution network. She is charged along with James Lee, 68, of Torrance, Calif., and Junmyung Lee, 30, of Dedham, with violating the Mann Act, a federal law that targets interstate prostitution rings.
Han Lee and Junmyung Lee are scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston Monday over the government’s request they remain held without bail pending trial. James Lee was arrested in California and will be returned to Boston for a detention hearing at a later date.
According to an affidavit filed in court by a Homeland Security agent, the network has operated brothels since at least July 2020, using luxury apartments in Cambridge and Watertown, as well as in Tysons and Fairfax, Va.
In another high-profile case that cast a spotlight on the sex trade industry, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was among two dozen men charged in 2019 in state court in Florida with solicitation of prostitution for allegedly paying for sex acts at a Jupiter massage parlor. Kraft apologized but pleaded not guilty. In 2020, prosecutors dropped charges against all the men after a judge ruled that video footage taken surreptitiously by police was inadmissible. Four women who faced prostitution charges related to that case pleaded guilty.
Federal law does not include provisions for criminal charges against someone for paying for sex, which is a state crime, according to authorities. But Keeley, the former human trafficking prosecutor, suggested a legal argument that could be used to bring federal charges against repeat customers who had signed up for memberships.
“The men who have been involved in this website for years possibly could be involved in a conspiracy,” said Keeley, now a partner at Butters Brazilian.
A spokesperson for Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office declined to comment Thursday on whether her office will pursue state charges against any of the people who patronized the brothels in Cambridge and Watertown.
Middlesex County has filed 13 charges against people for paying for sex between July 2018 and June of this year, according to trial court records.
Former Suffolk district attorney Daniel Conley said it’s common for state and federal authorities to work together to determine what office would best prosecute a crime, and ultimately Ryan must determine whether to pursue charges against the prostitution ring’s customers.
Conley said his approach to prosecuting those involved in the sex trade “evolved a bit over time” during the 16 years he was the top prosecutor in Boston.
“We were going to try to shift our resources to those adult men who are really exploiting these women,” said Conley, who was elected in 2002 and served until 2018, when he took a job in private practice at Mintz.
He said that while prosecutors should not “turn a blind eye at all” to the men buying sex, his office also put effort into trying to “help them understand that what they’re doing in the larger context is really harmful to these young women and harmful to society.”
William Korman, a former Suffolk prosecutor who now specializes in sexually based offenses as a defense attorney, said sex workers in brothels are typically only prosecuted when they have a “more managerial role,” such as booking appointments, advertising, or maintaining the website.
He said the state charges against buyers usually do not carry jail time for people without a criminal record. The men are typically sentenced to probation, with the most severe punishment the damage to their reputation or family life, he said.
“The collateral consequences are usually worse than the prosecution,” Korman said.
Morrisey, the advocate who was a sex worker in the Combat Zone in the 1980s, said the list of elite professions among the brothels’ clientele did not surprise her. In fact, it’s just another reason, in her mind, to try to impose those consequences on them.
“People like to imagine the buyer being a creepy guy in a trench coat,” she said. “But there are not enough creepy guys in trench coats to make this a multibillion-dollar industry.”