New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the NFL’s most influential figures, was charged with solicitation of prostitution Friday in connection with an investigation of several massage parlors in Florida suspected of involvement in human trafficking.
An arrest warrant for Kraft, a Massachusetts resident, will be issued next week for the prostitution-related charges, both misdemeanors, police said.
“We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity,” a spokesman for Kraft said in a statement. “Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.”
The charges against Kraft stemmed from a months-long investigation of several massage parlors in three counties in southeast Florida suspected of forcing immigrant employees to engage in sex acts with customers, police said. Kraft was among 25 men facing prostitution-related charges whose names were released by police Friday.
The Palm Beach area has been a second home to Kraft over the years. He has owned properties in the area and is longtime friends with President Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago Club is based there.
“It’s very sad,” Trump told reporters during a Friday afternoon appearance in the Oval Office. “I was very surprised to see it. He’s proclaimed his innocence, totally, but I was very surprised to see it.”
Kraft could face discipline from the NFL under its personal conduct policy. Owners are subject to the policy. In a written statement, the league said, “The NFL is aware of the ongoing law enforcement matter and will continue to monitor developments.”
In 2014, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 under the personal conduct policy. Irsay had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated after being arrested following a traffic stop. He told a judge that he was under the influence of painkillers when the traffic stop occurred.
The NFL more commonly applies the personal conduct policy to cases of wrongdoing involving players, and in those instances, the league generally waits for the legal process to play out, doing the same thing in Irsay’s case. But the policy also empowers the league to impose discipline, if it believes it is warranted, in cases without a criminal conviction — or even in those without criminal charges.
The league investigated former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after allegations of workplace misconduct surfaced in 2017. Soon after the accusations became public, Richardson announced he would sell the franchise; he sold the team last year to hedge fund billionaire David Tepper for an estimated $2.2 billion.
According to Sheriff William Snyder of Martin County, whose agency is also involved in the probe, more than 300 men caught as part of the broader investigation eventually will face charges.
“I know the story is about Kraft, but the bigger story in the moral universe is that these are trafficked women,” Snyder said. “These are women that are brought here from China under some kind of ruse, some promise of a job that never materialized because it was never there in the first place.”
Snyder said law enforcement interviewed one employee of one of the spas under investigation who said she was a victim of trafficking, but officials were seeking to interview others.
At a news conference Friday morning, Jupiter police officials said Kraft was videotaped visiting the spa and engaging in sex acts with employees on two occasions in January. The two women suspected of running the spa were arrested Tuesday on charges related to maintaining a house of prostitution but were not charged with trafficking-related crimes.
In a probable cause affidavit describing the charges against the women — Hua Zhang, 58, and Lei Wang, 39 — detectives wrote that they suspected trafficking at the spa because a health department investigator observed two rooms with beds and personal items, including medicine and clothing, and a refrigerator filled with food, “consistent with individuals living” at the establishment.
The investigation into the spa Kraft visited, according to police, began in October, when police Googled the address of the business and noticed it was listed on websites that compile reviews of illicit massage parlors. In early January, police stopped several men, who admitted to paying for sex acts, as they drove away from the spa.
It’s not clear how police were able to place video cameras in the spa, but according to the affidavit, in a five-day span in January, 26 men were videotaped in the spa paying employees for oral and manual sex acts. Police declined to elaborate on their evidence against Kraft, other than to say he was among those who had been videotaped.
Kraft long has been one of the league’s most influential and successful owners. He has overseen the NFL’s most prosperous on-field dynasty during an era in which free agency for players and a salary cap limiting teams’ spending generally have maintained competitive balance. The Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams this month in Atlanta for their sixth Super Bowl title with Kraft as their owner, Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback.
The Patriots also have become a financial powerhouse during Kraft’s ownership tenure, with a value estimated at $3.8 billion by Forbes.
Kraft has been credited with allowing Belichick the freedom to make football-related decisions without undue influence, but he also has been active in maintaining a productive working environment. When there was speculation in recent years that the relationship between Belichick and Brady had become strained, Kraft said repeatedly that all business pairings have their ups and downs, but he would do what he could to keep the Patriots’ dynasty intact for as long as possible.
Kraft also is viewed as a behind-the-scenes power broker among NFL owners. He was active in settling the league’s labor dispute in 2011. Kraft once was considered extremely close to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, so much so that some in and around the league said he was akin to being the deputy commissioner.
That relationship was tested when Goodell suspended Brady for four games and punished the Patriots in the Deflategate scandal, in which the team was accused of using improperly underinflated footballs. In 2016, Brady and the NFL Players Association took the league to federal court over Brady’s punishment, which eventually was enforced in full. But Kraft opted against suing the league and fellow owners, reinforcing his reputation as an owner with the NFL’s interests at heart. Kraft and Goodell have continued to work closely on league-related matters since.
A Boston-area native, Kraft built his fortune in paper and packaging, real estate development and sports and entertainment. The Patriots have won the Super Bowl six times since he purchased the team in 1994. His wife, Myra, died of cancer in 2011.
Philip Rucker, Julie Tate and Jacob Bogage contributed.