By BARRY MEIER
The Justice Department has been conducting a criminal investigation of sports fishing expeditions in the Amazon that may have been used as covers for Americans to have sex with underage girls, according to newly filed court papers. The investigation and two related actions — a parallel criminal inquiry in Brazil and an unusual lawsuit filed in federal court in Georgia — could provide a rare look at the business operations of the multibillion-dollar international sex tour industry, which has increasingly focused on Brazil. “Brazil is taking over from Thailand as a premier sex tourism vacation” spot, said Kristen Berg, an official of Equality Now, an advocacy organization in New York that helped bring the lawsuit in Georgia. That lawsuit was filed last month on behalf of four Brazilian women who claim that they were coerced as minors to serve as prostitutes for Americans on Amazon fishing expeditions operated by an Atlanta-area businessman. One of the women said that she was 12 years old at the time. Ms. Berg said the lawsuit was the first time that a federal law, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, had been used to seek damages from someone accused of operating sex tours.
On Thursday, the defendant in that case, Richard W. Schair, filed a motion asking that the lawsuit be stayed. The motion cited continuing criminal investigations in the United States and Brazil. In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Schair, who operates an Atlanta-area real estate business, said that allegations that he was involved in child sex tours were untrue. He declined to discuss specifics of the inquiries. “The allegations are false,” he said. “The facts will prove that.”
Solomon L. Wisenberg, a lawyer in Washington who represents Mr. Schair in connection with the federal criminal investigation, said he was confident that his client would not face charges. The status of the investigation is unclear, as Justice Department officials declined to comment. Ms. Berg, of Equality Now, said that the group helped bring the Georgia lawsuit because it was looking for precedent-setting cases involving child sex tourism overseas. She said that she and lawyers from a major firm, King & Spalding, which is working on the case pro bono, traveled to Brazil to interview prospective witnesses, including young women.
Both the lawsuit and the federal criminal investigation are apparently fallout from a separate lawsuit filed in 2007 by Mr. Schair against another operator of Amazon fishing tours, Philip A. Marsteller. In that action, Mr. Schair charged that Mr. Marsteller had slandered him by telling people that he supplied clients on his fishing tours with prostitutes and drugs. Mr. Marsteller stood by his comments and, as part of his defense, sought statements from young women in Brazil as well as employees of Mr. Schair’s company, called Wet-A-Line Tours. The company is no longer operating.
In 2008, the two men settled the case, with Mr. Schair paying token compensation to Mr. Marsteller, said Kevin Buchanan, a lawyer in Dallas who represented Mr. Marsteller. Mr. Buchanan said that information that came up during the lawsuit led federal officials to begin an investigation of American business connections to child sex tourism in Brazil.
Several news reports in recent years have indicated that Mr. Schair was the subject of criminal investigations both here and in Brazil. But the filing Thursday in conjunction with the Georgia lawsuit was the first time the investigations were publicly acknowledged. According to the court papers filed by Mr. Schair, federal prosecutors in Miami sent a grand jury subpoena to his company in 2009 asking for, among other things, customer lists. Another document shows that prosecutors notified his ex-wife in December that investigators had obtained information indicating that she was “involved with a company and/or an individual who may have engaged in child sex tourism in Brazil.”
Asked about the documents, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Miami, where the inquiry is based, declined, as a matter of policy, to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. Translations of Brazilian documents, attached by Mr. Schair to his filing, show that he is charged in a proceeding there with the sexual exploitation of minors. He has denied the accusation.
Mr. Schair made the filing on Thursday on his own behalf.
According to the lawsuit filed last month, Mr. Schair or his employees or customers recruited young girls at a social club along the Amazon to join them on a fishing boat, where the girls were coerced into sex acts and paid. The Amazon River in Brazil is a particularly attractive area for fishing enthusiasts because it is a home to a hard-fighting species called the peacock bass.