By Joseph Ax and Jonathan Allen
(Reuters) - Robert Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, was charged in Florida with soliciting prostitution after he was captured on video engaging in sex acts with a worker at a massage parlor, police said on Friday.
Kraft, 77, a billionaire businessman who built the Patriots into the National Football League's most dominant franchise, was swept up in a police sting targeting sex-trafficking in day spas and massage parlors in several Florida counties. The operation has led to hundreds being charged.
Kraft, who lives in Massachusetts but owns property in Palm Beach, Florida, is accused of visiting Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, on two separate occasions to solicit sex. The two charges he faces are misdemeanors.
Authorities have video evidence depicting the acts in question after installing hidden cameras inside the spa, police officials said, adding that Kraft had been dropped off by a driver.
A spokesman for Kraft and the Patriots, Aaron Salkin, said in a statement, "We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further."
Kraft could face discipline under the league's personal conduct policy, which applies to team owners and prohibits "conduct detrimental to the integrity" of the NFL. In 2004, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games and fined $500,000 after he pleaded guilty to driving while on drugs.
In a statement, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said, "The NFL is aware of the ongoing law enforcement matter and will continue to monitor developments."
Kraft, who made his fortune buying out and building up his father-in-law's product-packaging business, is worth $6.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Since Kraft bought the Patriots 25 years ago for $172 million, the team has become the most successful franchise in the NFL, appearing in 10 Super Bowls and winning six titles, including Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3. The franchise is now worth an estimated $3.7 billion, according to Forbes.
Kraft's wife of many decades, Myra Hiatt Kraft, died in 2011 of ovarian cancer. He has not remarried.
Kraft is a close friend and supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, who said told reporters in the Oval Office that he was "very sad" to hear about the charges.
"I was very surprised to see it," the president said. "He's proclaimed his innocence totally. And - but I'm very surprised to see it."
DAY SPA TARGETED
No one answered the phone at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa on Friday.
The spa's website advertises body treatments, facials and massages, such as the "Tokyo Ultimate 4 Hand." Standard services generally cost $59 for a half hour and $79 for an hour, police said.
The owner of Goodfella's Pizza across the street, Joseph Bompartito, 33, said he frequently saw young women who worked at the spa walking through the shopping plaza where it is located.
"They looked miserable, malnourished, very skinny, very pale with a depressed look on their face," he said.
He also recalled seeing Kraft getting into a chauffeured car at the plaza about two weeks ago, saying he waved to Kraft and the Patriots owner waved back out of the car window.
Kraft, widely considered one of the NFL's most powerful and influential owners, has become a hero to may Bostonians. Early this month hundreds of thousands of people lined the city's streets to see the owner and his team celebrate their sixth Super Bowl win.
Some top Massachusetts officials on Friday voiced deep concern over the charges.
Governor Charles Baker "finds these allegations deeply disturbing and condemns all acts of sexual exploitation," Anisha Chakrabarti, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Jonathan Allen, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York; and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool)