New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is bringing hired guns to a courtroom knife fight.
Kraft is facing two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution for allegedly visiting the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida on two occasions in January and paying for sexual favors from the massage parlor’s staff.
The powerful New England Patriots team owner has pleaded not guilty and opted for a non-jury trial, before a judge — while assembling a powerhouse team of high-profile Florida criminal defense attorneys.
He is facing a statutory maximum of one year in jail, though prosecutors often offer first-time offenders a chance to pay a fine and perform community service, while not admitting fault, according to veteran Florida criminal defense attorneys who spoke with ABC News.
‘A higher standard’
But there may be a more costly reckoning for Kraft looming beyond the courtroom, where the judgments could be more severe.
National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Godell has punished Kraft’s Patriots more severely than any other franchise during his tenure, according to ESPN. He fined them $250,000, and coach Bill Belichick $500,000, for spying on an opponent’s defensive signals in 2007. He fined the Patriots $1 million, stripped them of two draft choices and suspended quarterback Tom Brady as part of the 2015 Deflategate investigation.
Even without pleading guilty, league policy states that Kraft could still subject to league penalties, according to ESPN.
“It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.”
Beyond potential punitive measures from the NFL, Kraft still faces the threat of potentially embarrassing footage surfacing anyway.
The investigation involved dozens of law enforcement officials from numerous agencies as well their counterparts in criminal courts system. Access to such evidence is naturally more vulnerable to misuse the more hands it passes through, defense attorneys and law enforcement officials said.
Given the stakes, Kraft is assembling a powerhouse legal team to go at the state’s case.
The situation Kraft and scores of other central Florida men found themselves in last month is one consequence of the evolving use by law enforcement of surveillance tactics and tools originally reserved for terrorism investigations.
The USA Patriot Act signed in 2001 for the first time authorized the use of so-called ‘sneak-and-peak’ warrants, which allow U.S. law enforcement officials to covertly enter a private premises without the owner’s knowledge or permission, and in the case of the Florida investigation, record video evidence over weeks.
While the justification for such an arguably invasive investigative technique is hard to make for a misdemeanor-level prostitution case, the contention that the probe was a large-scale, months-long operation aimed at human-trafficking, not prostitution, suggests the warrants may stand up under scrutiny, according to local defense attorneys not involved in the Kraft case.
Kraft recently recruited defense attorneys Alex Spiro and William Burck, who was a lawyer in the George W. Bush White House.
Burck is a Yale Law School graduate who served in the George W. Bush White House and clerked for retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He later as a prosecutor with Southern District of New York between 2003 and 2005.
Burck has also represented former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former White House counsel, Don McGahn.
Spiro, a Boston-bred Harvard Law School graduate has represented pop stars Mick Jagger and Jay-Z, as well as a raft of top athletes.
After then-Atlanta Hawk Sefolosha was arrested in New York for resisting arrest, Spiro wrangled a $4 million to settle out of the city. An alleged nightclub assault resulted in community service for Spiro client Matt Barnes, the former NBA player. When retired New York Knick Charles Oakley was ejected from a Knicks game and arrested after a courtside dispute, he hired Spiro.
Spiro, a former Manhattan prosecutor, was also part of the defense team that represented New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in the second of two separate murder trials.
In the first trial, Hernandez was found guilty in 2015 of a murder and sentenced to life in prison. But two years later, he was acquitted of the murders of two men in a separate case. Two days after the acquittals, which Spiro helped secure, Hernandez committed suicide in prison.
Another attorney on the team is Jeffrey Goldberger, the criminal defense attorney who helped politically-connected Florida financier Jeffrey Epstein reach a non-prosecution deal in 2008 with the Miami U.S. Attorney’s office to end a federal investigation into sex abuse involving at least 40 teenage girls.
Epstein ultimately pleaded guilty to state charges and spent 13 months in a county prison with work release privileges, registered as a sex offender and paid settlements to the victims. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into that plea deal.
None of Kraft’s three current defense attorneys responded to calls for comment from ABC News.
But even with Kraft’s legal dream team, he may have a better chance accepting a deal than going to trial, according to Florida criminal defense attorneys with experience representing high-profile clients.
While Kraft’s lawyers are likely to challenge the validity of the warrants that allowed police to surreptitiously enter the spa and install video recording equipment inside the massage patron’s private massage rooms, the law enforcement goal was far broader that misdemeanor arrests of patrons.
“The sneak and peak warrants — if [they were] just for a misdemeanor, that’s not really what they’re normally used for,” said attorney Mark O’Mara, who won George Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges in the fatal 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“But [authorities] have a much more justified position in that they were investigating human trafficking,” O’Mara told ABC News. “Nobody, no appellate judge, is going to throw out a sneak-and-peak warrant when prosecutors say ‘these women were slaves.’ So with that as the foundation, you realize that it’s probably going to survive a warrant attack” by defense attorneys.
‘Turn it around’
Another top central Florida defense attorney agreed.
“If you have a reasonable suspicion or probable cause that sex trafficking is going on, you want to be able to establish that,” said Mark NeJame, who represented Tiger Woods after the athlete crashed his Cadillac Escalade in 2009 into a fire hydrant and a neighbor’s tree near his Florida mansion around 2:30 a.m.
“You’d typically have a very reluctant perpetrator — in the form of the massage therapist, and you’d need to establish that the act was occurring, and that they were being held against their will. The collateral damage is those who are enabling this, and that’s where Kraft apparently comes into the picture.”
NeJame said that optics play little to no role in criminal defense strategies.
“Some people think it’s a sign of guilt to bring in top level lawyers, but the truth is anything but,” NeJame said. “You are entitled to the best defense possible and if you can afford to bring on a team like this, why would you not bring on the best team possible to look at every legal aspect of the case.”
O’Mara, who has counseled thousands of clients on whether to take a plea or take a case to trial, said he thinks that the best outcome that Kraft can hope for -– particularly in the eyes of his fellow NFL owners — is to take a plea and try and turn the incident around.
“Look, you’re 77,” O’Mara said, speaking hypothetically. “What you did was stupid, but you didn’t realize who these women are, and now that you do, you have a great opportunity to turn it around, to turn it into something positive and open the Robert Kraft Center for Trafficked Women. And then nobody’s gonna care about your silly misdemeanor.”
ABC News’ Santina Leuci contributed to this report.