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The Masterminds Behind the Emperors Club Escort Service

NYC- The escort service accused of enticing Eliot Spitzer and a host of other clients was operated by four improbable masters of temptation: a rejuvenated tax specialist, a boarding school pixie, a literature major from Virginia and a clog-wearing nutritionist.

The women facing federal charges in connection with the Emperor’s Club V.I.P., the escort service in the Eliot Spitzer scandal, are Cecil Suwal, Temeka Lewis, and Tanya Hollander [pictured]. The founder of the business, Mark Brener, was also charged.

These four people, none of whom had a criminal record, operated the Emperor’s Club V.I.P., an escort service that functioned as a prostitution ring charging as much as $5,500 an hour, prosecutors say.

Though new to the industry, the ring took in more than $1 million in barely three years, dispatching more than 50 prostitutes in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Paris and London to rendezvous, the federal authorities allege. In the process, the ring unwittingly did what Wall Street titans and political foes could not: bring down Mr. Spitzer. For all the weighty consequences of its operation, the Emperor’s Club had a homespun quality.

Its boss was Mark Brener, 62. He dealt with a stack of medical bills for his late wife by starting the escort service, an idea that dawned on him several years ago as he surveyed sex-related advertisements in the weekly newspaper The Village Voice, an associate of Mr. Brener’s said.

The venture reinvigorated Mr. Brener. He dyed his hair black, donned a leather jacket and recruited three women to help him. The four seemingly had little in common beyond a desire for extra money and a willingness to earn it in alternative ways.

Cecil Suwal, now 23, a graduate of an elite New Jersey prep school, became operations manager for the service in 2004, the authorities say.

Temeka Rachelle Lewis, 32, whom friends describe as a reserved and bookish graduate of the University of Virginia, scheduled meetings between willing young women and wealthy men, the authorities said.

Assisting in that work, they say, was Tanya Hollander, 36. She joined the business hoping extra money would help support a new career as a holistic living counselor, her fiancé said.

“She is one of the sweetest, kindest people you’ll ever meet,” said the fiancé, Lance Cyrlin, a musician.

Ms. Hollander and the other three accused members of the ring have pleaded not guilty to federal charges that include prostitution.

These accounts of their lives are based on court records and on interviews with a variety of friends, associates, former neighbors and defense lawyers in the case.

For decades, studies have tracked the forces that drive people into prostitution. Few, though, have reviewed what, beyond money, propels someone toward a life as a pimp or a madam.

“We don’t know much about people who run brothels, massage parlors or escort agencies,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University who has written about the sex industry.

Certainly, Heidi Fleiss, known in the 1990s as the Hollywood Madam, and Sydney Biddle Barrows, the Mayflower Madam of the ’80s, came from stations of privilege that made their notoriety as procurers incongruous.

In their cases, though, they had been socializing in circles in which money — and the lure of what it could bring — was ingrained in the fabric of life. In the case of the crew that prosecutors said ran the Emperor’s Club, the outlines of their earlier lives seem more prosaic.

Aric H. Bopp graduated with Ms. Lewis in 1993 from Harrisonburg High School in Virginia. “Of all the people that I went to high school with,” he said, “she would be one of the absolute last people I would have ever thought would be involved in something like that.”

Mark Brener’s former neighbors in South Brunswick, N.J., remember when he returned six years after his first wife’s death to sell their condominium in 2003. The man they had known, a 5-foot-5 tax man with thinning gray hair and crooked teeth, had never fit anyone’s image of a pimp.

But when he pulled up in a sports car, Mr. Brener had transformed himself into an aging hipster, with sunglasses, a black comb-over and a young woman at his side. “We didn’t even know who he was,” said one former neighbor, Theresa Smith.

Born near the end of World War II, Mr. Brener had grown up in the area of the Polish-Russian border and, as a young man, moved to Israel, where he worked for the government tax agency, according to an associate.

In the late 1980s, he, his wife and their teenage son immigrated to Queens. Mr. Brener was working as a tax consultant, and in 1995 the family moved into a two-story condominium in South Brunswick. Soon after, neighbors say, his wife, Eleonora, learned she had cancer. Mr. Brener’s devotion to her was unmistakable, said neighbors, who watched the couple take slow walks in the evenings.

As her prognosis became grim, Mr. Brener told neighbors he was taking her to Paris in search of alternative treatments, said Ms. Smith, who lived next door.

When Mrs. Brener died in 1997 at age 51, Mr. Brener, broke and facing court judgments for unpaid medical bills, moved back to Queens. Within a few years, he had remarried. His new wife, Liang Hui Chen, hoped to become a teacher, said Paul Yeung, whose father owns the building in Middle Village, Queens, where the couple lived for a few months.

Mr. Brener came to the idea of running an escort service, an associate said, after noticing the women in escort ads, and in July 2004,, the Web site to promote his own new business, was registered in Ms. Chen’s name. Ms. Chen, who could not be reached for comment, filed for divorce later that year.

Mr. Brener quickly replaced her, with Ms. Suwal.

Petite, bubbly, and in her second year at the University of Miami, Cecil Suwal met Mr. Brener when she answered a help-wanted ad he placed for a new escort service, a friend of hers from Florida said.

Two years earlier, Ms. Suwal had graduated from Blair Academy, a boarding school in Warren County, N.J., where she had occupied the vast middle ground of high school society, said T. Chandler Hardwick III, Blair’s headmaster since 1989.

Neither an overachiever nor a problem student, Ms. Suwal was a “bright and positive girl,” recalled Mr. Hardwick, who said she had won a letter in track and displayed great interest in Spanish and photography. Her parents had divorced, and she kept to a small group of friends, he said.

“She gave no evidence of instability or unhappiness or any of the things that might have caused us to be concerned about her,” Mr. Hardwick said.

Her relationship with Mr. Brener appears to have progressed quickly. In December 2004, she opened a bank account in the name of QAT Consulting Group, a corporate entity that Mr. Brener controlled, according to court records. And she moved in with him at the Briarcliff, a 27-floor luxury apartment building overlooking the Hudson River in Cliffside Park, N.J. Neighbors noticed the age disparity in the couple.

“I wasn’t sure if she was his daughter or not,” said Egzon Banushi, a doorman at the building. “It seemed awkward.”

The pair seldom spoke to neighbors and rarely had guests. One neighbor recalled trying to start a conversation during an elevator ride with the couple.

“We both live on the 12th floor,” she said to them. The pleasantry drew blank stares.

The police were called to the apartment in September 2005, when a neighbor reported hearing what she thought was a little girl complaining that her father had been hitting her.

When officers arrived, Mr. Brener and Ms. Suwal said they had argued but had never struck each other, according to a police report. No charges were filed.

The authorities showed up again last month, this time with a search warrant for the apartment, which served as the company’s business office. Investigators recovered about $600,000 in cash and business records, prosecutors said.

Otherwise, the couple displayed none of the glamour associated with their Web site. Neither owns any real estate — Mr. Brener’s son owns their apartment — and Mr. Brener is no longer driving the sports car neighbors remember. Recently, he had been driving a minivan.

While Ms. Suwal oversaw the escort business, the authorities said, Temeka Lewis operated as a dispatcher. It seems unlikely that anything in the great works of fiction she studied in college would have prepared her for the gritty realities of playing air traffic controller to high-flying young women meeting men in hotels.

Prostitutes showed up with child care issues. Some did not want a client who was a “partier.” Clients had trouble finding cash machines.

During a call in January, Ms. Lewis told Mr. Brener about an escort who missed an appointment and then sent her a “crazy” text message, according to court papers. They discussed whether the woman was using drugs.

“A lot of these girls deteriorate to this point,” Ms. Lewis is quoted as saying.

Ms. Lewis’s own upbringing was stable and middle-class, according to friends. As a child in Harrisonburg, Va., she was considered quiet and bookish, in contrast to her twin sister, an extrovert.

“She was just an outstanding person, good student, very reserved individual, didn’t get in any trouble,” said Mr. Bopp, her high school classmate.

In 2005, Ms. Lewis, who lives in Brooklyn, was working as a waitress. One day, she saw an ad for a “scheduler” at the Emperor’s Club, according to a person familiar with her account, and she took the job days later.

Her colleague in the dispatching side of the business, the authorities say, was Tanya Hollander, a Long Island native who graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She and her fiancé left Brooklyn four years ago to buy a modest cottage at the top of a steep, unpaved road in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where Ms. Hollander was trying to develop a career as a holistic living counselor.

Her kitchen shelves brim with spices and herbs, and the day after her arrest last month, she was back home, wearing a down vest, jeans and clogs. Her table was strewn with grapefruit and books of holistic and organic recipes.

“I’d like to help people heal through food, to use food as medicine and to take the time to choose the right meals,” she said. “This whole thing is very upsetting to me because I’ve been working on this business for five years.”

Ms. Hollander’s fiancé insists that she thought she was only booking models for events like car shows.

“My client is a trusting and good-hearted person,” her lawyer, Mary E. Mulligan, said.

The reports that Mr. Spitzer was a client of the Emperor’s Club have attracted immense publicity and provided much fodder for late-night comedians. He left office as governor within a week. Though Mr. Spitzer has not been charged with a crime, lawyers for the Emperor’s Club defendants say his celebrity has made the case an unusually high-profile prosecution.

“But for the fact that Spitzer was the lightning rod,” said Mr. Brener’s lawyer, Murray Richman, “they would not have felt the effect of the storm.”

However late or unlikely, their immersion in an escort business ultimately led the Emperor’s Club crew into conversations, intercepted by prosecutors, which seem to show flashes of calculation and cunning.

Once, according to court papers, Ms. Suwal chastised Ms. Lewis for letting an escort fax in a sloppy credit card slip, saying that if “American Express were to ask to see that, as a legitimate business, you can’t even deliver something like that.”

Mr. Brener deprecated an escort by saying she “looks like a butcher, in my opinion.”

Speaking with a customer worried about the prospect of getting arrested, Ms. Lewis sought to calm the man by assuring him that funneling money through QAT Consulting protected them all.

“That’s how they usually come after you…fake company,” the client said.

“There are real offices in New York City,” Ms. Lewis said. “Just as long as you pay your taxes, you’re fine.”


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