October 26, 2012

Judge refuses to dismiss Kennebunk prostitution case

By Ann S. Kim akim@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

ALFRED — A Thomaston man who is accused in an alleged prostitution operation in Kennebunk failed Friday in his attempt to have the judge in the case recuse herself and to have his case dismissed.

Mark Strong Sr., 57, an insurance agent and private investigator, was charged in July with promotion of prostitution, a misdemeanor. No one else has been charged in the case.

His attorney, Daniel Lilley, argued that the case should be dismissed because prosecutors have not followed the rules of discovery. Lilley said he should have received documents and other evidence from prosecutors by Aug. 10 but still has not.

York County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled that dismissal was not appropriate because there was no evidence that prosecutors acted in bad faith.

"I would say maybe the state has gotten in a bit over its head in terms of the sheer volume and managing it," Wheeler said of the evidence.

Wheeler said she expects parties to follow the rules of discovery and told the prosecution that it must be more responsive.

Lilley said that two calls to the York County District Attorney's Office were not returned -- the prosecutor said she did not get the message -- and that he filed his motion two weeks after the Aug. 10 deadline to get the judge's attention.

He said he didn't get a call from prosecutors until this week. He was then able to see the quantity of evidence at the Kennebunk Police Department but was not allowed to examine it, he said.

Prosecutors are dealing with an extremely large amount of data, said Deputy District Attorney Justina McGettigan.

Authorities gathered evidence in February from Alexis Wright's home in Wells, the fitness studio in Kennebunk where she taught Zumba classes and her nearby office space. In July, police searched Strong's home and office in Thomaston.

According to a police affidavit, the searches of Wright's home and workplaces turned up evidence of significant business and personal connections between Strong and Wright. They also found video of Wright engaged in sexual acts, a price list and "meticulous" client records, according to the affidavit, which was for Strong's arrest.

The existence of a list of alleged clients -- rumored to include prominent figures -- has fueled speculation about who was involved. Defense lawyers in southern Maine have said that clients have been seeking legal representation.

Lilley has said he will subpoena the alleged clients and anyone else involved in the case.

He has said that Wright hired Strong to investigate her complaints of harassment by Kennebunk police. Strong loaned Wright money, thinking he was investing in a legitimate business, according to Lilley.

Assistant Attorney General Gregg Bernstein, who investigates financial crimes, formally joined the case two or three weeks ago.

The affidavit says authorities have Maine tax returns filed by Wright and estimate that the sex acts would have generated $150,000. The document also indicates that authorities have footage of Wright asking Strong to check license plate numbers, but it does not explain why.

McGettigan said it was surprising how much evidence was discovered in Thomaston, given how much time Strong had to destroy evidence. The affidavits for the searches in Thomaston remain sealed.

The information that prosecutors have leads in many directions and involves many parties, and the state wants to make sure that if it charges someone it will be able to, without the cooperation of others, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has occurred, she said.

"There's some suggestions ... that Mr. Strong is being selectively prosecuted. We just want to assure the court that is not the case," McGettigan said.

Wheeler said she wants a report by Sept. 21 on what has been provided to Lilley so she has some oversight of the process. Strong has a court appearance scheduled for Oct. 4.

Lilley told reporters after the hearing that his client has suffered under intense media coverage and can't get balance unless more information is made available to the defense.

"If we can get a trial and an acquittal, my client might be able to resurrect his life," he said.

In a separate motion filed this week, Lilley asked Wheeler to recuse herself. He said there is possible bias or the appearance of bias because one of the prosecutors, Kate Lawrence, is married to Jonathan Nathans, a law clerk for Wheeler.

McGettigan and Bernstein joined Lilley in his motion.

"I will just point out we have no problem with your honor's ability to sit on this case; it would be the question of how it would be viewed," McGettigan said.

Wheeler said Nathans is one of four law clerks based in Cumberland County who work with her and several other judges, primarily on civil cases. She said he has had no involvement in the case and he will not work on it.

She said she reviewed the section of the code of conduct regarding bias and found that none of the categories apply.

Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas Humphrey specially assigned Wheeler to the high-profile case. There was concern that if a judge who normally sits in York County knew any of the witnesses, he or she would have to be recused.

Strong did not attend Friday's hearing.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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