the cost of a free press
Prostitution Charge Dropped in Case an Albany Journalist Called Retaliation
By JESSE McKINLEY
AUG. 9, 2015
ALBANY — In March 2012, just blocks from the State Capitol, several law enforcement officers stormed into a second-floor spa and arrested a woman, accusing her of soliciting money for sexual acts. An invasive strip search was done, thousands of dollars were seized and the woman, Min Liu, was soon charged with prostitution.
But it was the woman’s employer at the Green Garden Asian Spa who provoked the uproar: Bin Cheng, the wife of J. Robert Port, who was the investigations editor at The Times Union of Albany.
Almost as soon as Ms. Liu was arrested, Mr. Port accused the police of targeting his wife’s business in retaliation for a series of articles he had shepherded into the newspaper that called into question the tactics and practices of an Albany County sheriff’s drug unit.
“I already knew that this unit was investigating my wife,” said Mr. Port, 59, who is also a former adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University. “I knew they were watching her.”
Ms. Cheng, 46, was not at the spa during the raid, nor was she ever charged with any crime, but the implication that she was involved in nefarious activities hovered over Mr. Port’s family, he said.
“This went on for three years, a cloud over a person’s head and a cloud hanging over my wife’s business,” he said, reiterating that he believed the arrest was related to “the work I was doing with the Albany Times Union investigating local police.”
A city court judge in Albany last week dismissed the charge, a misdemeanor, against Ms. Liu, after county prosecutors concluded that the case should be dropped “in the interest of justice.”
The order, by Judge Gary F. Stiglmeier, outlined the reasons for the dismissal, including the lack of witnesses “or other evidence of the defendant’s guilt,” other than the testimony of the city detective who alleged the crime. That detective, Scott D. Gavigan, had been working with the unit Mr. Port had helped investigate, and was in the spa with Ms. Liu at the time of the sting.
Ms. Liu’s lawyer, Kevin A. Luibrand, hailed the decision, which was made on July 28, as long overdue and said that his client — a 56-year-old Chinese immigrant and grandmother with no previous criminal record — had endured a cavity search during the arrest, and “continued to experience significant distress as a result of the charges,” including hindering her ability to find work.
In his legal filings and an interview last week, Mr. Luibrand said there was no case against his client: No “buy money” for the alleged sexual acts was found, nor had Detective Gavigan produced a recording of the transaction he asserted had occurred. Mr. Luibrand also said the police had at one point falsely suggested drug activity was taking place at the spa.
“The overkill on this case was profound,” he said.
Both Mr. Luibrand and Mr. Port said they believed that the Albany police had arrested Ms. Liu, who always asserted her innocence, because they mistook her for Mr. Port’s wife.
“They didn’t know one Chinese woman from another,” Mr. Port said.
Steven A. Smith Jr., a spokesman for the Albany Police Department, had no comment on the particulars of the case, but suggested that it would approach such cases differently.
“If we had to take on one of these operations in the future,” he said, “we would certainly weigh out our investigatory options before making our decisions.”
A spokeswoman for David Soares, the Albany County district attorney, said the decision to support the dismissal came after evaluating the evidence and finding “significant proof problems.”
The drug unit that Mr. Port and Brendan J. Lyons, a reporter, investigated was disbanded around the same time as the raid at the Green Garden, according to Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple. The raid also prompted an internal review. Sheriff Apple’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the Green Garden case, the drug unit or the findings of that internal investigation.
Mr. Luibrand said Ms. Liu, who lives in Flushing, Queens, did not speak English fluently but was a longtime aesthetician and was pleased that her name had been cleared. “She’s thrilled by it, she’s happy,” he said.
Mr. Port, who left The Times Union in 2013, said on Wednesday that his wife, who declined to be interviewed, also felt relieved. He said that her business had expanded to four spas in the capital region, with eight employees total.
Still, while he and Ms. Cheng have tried to move on, Mr. Port said that the case had left him with even more questions about law enforcement behavior.
“I think police need to behave themselves,” he said. “And police need to be policed.”