He could have gone anywhere, but Robert Kraft — one of the 100 richest men in America, owner of the Super Bowl champion (sigh) New England Patriots — went to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, in a less-than-nondescript strip mall in Jupiter, Fla. He was takin’ care of business, according to police, behind dark-tinted windows promising “Massage Therapy” and beige circa-1970s stucco, right there between the game shop and the nail salon and the newly renovated Thai restaurant.
Bob Kraft is reportedly worth $6.6 billion. The price for a half hour at Orchids of Asia — where authorities on Friday said Kraft solicited prostitution, the charges brought after cops filmed him allegedly having sex with workers on two separate occasions — is $59.
It’s easy to make the pathos of a pompous billionaire caught up in a sex sting into the butt of jokes — especially when every red-blooded American west of Hartford absolutely hates Kraft’s football team — and on social media thousands of people have been doing exactly that. Totally understandable. But it’s important to take a deep breath and remember — this isn’t really “a sex scandal.” The real scandal here is the gross imbalance of power involving women who were held in a form of human bondage to serve as objects of gratification for powerful men intoxicated by their belief they can get away with anything.
That’s because for decades, men — and that’s who we’re talking about here, men — with thick wads of bills and friends on the golf fairways of power have gotten away with everything. There’s a reason that a billionaire like Donald Trump could fantasize about shooting somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and getting away with it, because everything short of that has already been gotten away with. But Kraft’s embarrassing charges come at one of those rarest of moments — when everyday people are suddenly realizing who doesn’t have power in America, who does, and that something can be done about this.
There are actually two cases involving billionaire Palm Beach neighbors that are blowing up right now — those of Kraft and the convicted teen-sex-abuser Jeffrey Epstein. In different ways, both men exploited women who were very young and very poor — and whom they considered disposable.
The women who serviced Bob Kraft were lured to America, typically from China, and promised a better life through legitimate massage-therapy work. According to local law-enforcement authorities who last week shut down not just the Orchids of Asia but five other spas and massage parlors along Florida’s Gold Coast, these women were brought to an alien land halfway across the world from home and then pressured into prostitution with no days off and “minimal" hygiene. They lived in spartan quarters right there on the premises, so they can work until all hours of the night, having sex with 1,500 men a year.
These modern-day sex slaves worked for a clientele that were the supposed pillars of the affluent zip codes in and around Palm Beach — members of the clergy and respectable business people, including, according to police, at least one other billionaire, Massachusetts equity fund owner John Childs. Childs has also donated a whopping $4.3 million to Republican causes, presumably to elect “family values” candidates. Did Childs, Kraft and these other paragons of civic virtue realize that they were subsidizing slavery? That doesn’t matter — what’s so galling is that they didn’t care, that the word wasn’t even in their vocabulary.
Will Kraft get away with this? If his case goes down anything like that of his Palm Beach neighbor Epstein, he just might. Epstein, a former Bear Stearns partner and billionaire financier, was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage teen girls at his Palm Beach mansion between 2001 and 2006. The investigation began in 2005 with a tip to Palm Beach police about a 14-year-old girl who’d been brought there and paid $300 to strip and massage Epstein. A lengthy FBI investigation led to molestation allegations against Epstein from 36 different girls, many of whom were lured from troubled homes in what the Miami Herald later described as “a cultlike scheme.”
But the billionaire’s young victims were eventually abused not once but twice — first by Jeffrey Epstein, and then by the U.S. Justice Department. Its prosecutors — presented with a mound of evidence on the scale of a Jerry Sandusky or a Bill Cosby — agreed to a stunning slap on the wrist. Epstein was allowed to plead to just one state felony charge of soliciting prostitution and granted immunity from federal charges. Coconspirators — known and unknown, potentially including the rich and powerful of Palm Beach — also got immunity.
Incredibly, Epstein slept just 13 months in a county jail and was allowed to leave for work every day. Even worse, as the Herald’s Julie K. Brown (a former Daily News colleague and friend) reported in her Polk Award-winning series, Epstein’s victims were never informed of his sweetheart deal or allowed to weigh in. On Friday, a judge ruled that Justice Department lawyers broke the law in their handling of the deal. The man who oversaw all of this — the then-U.S. Attorney for Miami, Alex Acosta — has moved on. He is still the U.S. Secretary of Labor, appointed by Epstein’s friend President Trump.
Indeed, Epstein’s teen-sex-abuse equivalent of shooting a man on Fifth Avenue and getting away with it was clearly made possible by his many powerful friends — including not just Trump but also former president Bill Clinton, a frequent flier on Epstein’s plane that was dubbed (no, you can’t make these things up) “the Lolita Express.” His lawyers who negotiated his cushy deal included Alan Dershowitz (now also accused of Epstein-related sexual shenanigans) and Kenneth Starr. Their work only proved that there are two systems of justice in America — one for the 1 Percent and another for the rest of us.
Ironically, the escapades of Palm Beach’s Billionaires Gone Wild have played a key role in making more and more Americans woke to our three-ring circus of power imbalance — income inequality, the patriarchy, and white privilege — and how closely locked those circles have become. It’s not just sex crimes. Remember the failure to hold any rich folks accountable for crashing the world economy in 2008?
Or reflect, for just one moment, on Robert Kraft’s National Football League. Players linked to violence and abuse toward women are welcomed back into the NFL after Epstein-caliber wrist slaps, while the one player who dared question police brutality toward African Americans was blackballed for two years.
Don’t be shocked, shocked when Bob Kraft gets off easy from the league.
Yet the absolute peak for the tyranny of America’s billionaire patriarchy could also mean the beginning of its end. That would be the election of Trump in 2016. Like his friend Epstein, Trump got away with stunning sexual misconduct on the road to the White House — caught on tape bragging about groping women’s private parts and also accused of various sexual misconduct by 22 women. Only later did we learn that Trump’s fixer and now convicted felon Michael Cohen had engineered large payoffs to two women to keep their stories of extramarital affairs with Trump out of the media right before Election Day.
But the fact that such a man could be elected president woke up a slumbering giant. Millions of women took to the streets to protest on the morning after Trump’s inauguration. That show of solidarity helped encourage others who’d been abused by powerful men and shamed into silence to instead tell their stories in the #MeToo movement, bringing down men like Harvey Weinstein so accustomed to getting away with it. In November 2018, a surge of female voters elected a new Congress with a powerful core determined to do what once had seemed unthinkable: Hold America’s billionaires to account.
I don’t think it’s crazy to draw a straight line between the patriarchal abuses of men like Epstein and Trump to growing public support for not-so-radical ideas like Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, a levy on those with a net worth of more than $50 million, or Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion of a 70 percent marginal tax rate similar to what was assessed in America in the booming 1950s and ’60s. It’s one side of an equation that seeks a fairer, just America where some folks aren’t forced into bankruptcy by a hospital bill or held back by massive college debts while a privileged class gets away with high crimes and misdemeanors.