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Judge accepts plea deal in sex case

Woman regrets extortion attempt

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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A Canton prostitute who admitted extorting $280,000 from a prominent local businessman in exchange for keeping their liaisons secret will be freed from jail next week but must spend six months in home confinement and risks being sent to prison if she reveals her client's identity in the next three years.

US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf accepted a controversial plea agreement yesterday that will give Michelle Robinson, 29, much less time behind bars than the approximately two to three years that federal sentencing guidelines recommend and forbids her from revealing the identity of the man she extorted with threats of public disclosure.

Wolf also ordered federal prosecutors and Robinson's lawyer to compile lists of individuals who know the businessman's name, including lawyers and FBI agents. If the businessman's identity is publicly disclosed, he said, he will use the lists to determine whether Robinson was the source of the leak or whether it came from one of the other people.

"If she violates any of the conditions of her supervised release, including by disclosing [the victim's identity], she'll be locked up for up to three years and then placed on supervised release again," Wolf told her lawyer, Mark D. Smith.

Wolf said he agreed to sentence Robinson to the six months she has already spent in jail since her Aug. 13 arrest because she had suffered considerably, including losing custody of her daughter. He also said Robinson had a history of physical abuse as a child, spent time in foster homes, and may have been manipulated by other individuals in the extortion scheme.

Wolf, a former high-ranking federal prosecutor, sided with prosecutors who have taken pains to keep the man's identity a secret even though the businessman repeatedly committed a crime by paying Robinson for sex from about January 2007 to June 2008.

"While that businessperson created his own vulnerability, he is nevertheless a victim," said Wolf. He said the man deserves the protections of the Crime Victims' Rights Act of 2004, which says victims have the right "to be treated with fairness and respect for [their] dignity and privacy."

Robinson, a diminutive woman in a blue jail jumpsuit, said she was sorry for her actions.

"I just want to apologize to the court and to the victim," said Robinson, who pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud. "I feel really horrible, and I'm really sorry for what I did, and I have no intentions of discussing the case with anybody."

Donald K. Stern, the former US attorney who represented the businessman, told the court that his client regrets that he put himself in an embarrassing position that led to extortion.

The businessman, who has been described by authorities as a prosperous married man in his 60s from the Boston area who has funded start-up companies and is active in charitable circles, does not want the $280,000 in restitution that Robinson is required to pay, Stern said. Instead, he wants the money paid to a fund for crime victims.

"Clearly he made some very bad decisions along the way," Stern told the judge. "He regrets the resources that were used by the government and, in fact, he regrets that Ms. Robinson is now a defendant before the court."

Several legal specialists have criticized prosecutors' efforts to withhold the name of the businessman and said he appears to be receiving extraordinary deference.

But Wolf said that the court system has shown increasing concern for crime victims in recent years, and agreed with prosecutors that withholding the name would encourage others to come forward if they were extorted.

Robinson's mother, Linda Garcia of Boston, who watched the sentencing, said the businessman got off easy.

"I think he should get punished, too - same thing as they're catching johns somewhere," she said, referring to police arrests of prostitution customers. "If he never called her, she never would have met him. He sought her out."

The businessman told authorities that he contacted Robinson through an escort service he found in the Yellow Pages.

Garcia said she does not know the businessman's identity.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe .com.

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