WASHINGTON – Natasha Spivack’s basement is a portal to another time.
Down the stairs. Past the strobe lights and black-and-white checkered wall paper. Enter a 1980s Russian disco.
The underground party is good for business — it brings people together, she said.
Bringing people together is Spivack’s job. Her Washington home doubles as the American headquarters of her international matchmaking service, Encounters International, which is responsible for almost 300 marriages, 100 children and about 45 divorces.
Spivack launched Encounters out of her Bethesda home in 1993, but an accidental fire a few years ago prompted her eventual relocation to Washington, just a few miles beyond Maryland’s jurisdiction, earlier this year.
The fire, in one respect, may have been an act of providence because it eventually led her to the District and away from a Maryland bill requiring international marriages brokers to conduct criminal and marital background checks on their clients, as well as inform recruits, typically foreign women, of their basic human rights, particularly those in the event of domestic abuse. The bill is in conference after it passed both chambers of the General Assembly in February.
The act was born, not out of complaints to the Maryland Attorney General, which has none, but partly out of a high-profile lawsuit centered on Spivack.
In 2004, Nataliya Fox, a Ukrainian woman, sued Spivack for failing to inform her about her rights as an abused spouse, which the federal International Marriage Broker Regulation Act requires brokers to do.
She testified that her husband mentally and physically abused her on multiple occasions, including once when she was four-months pregnant, according to court records. And when she turned to Spivack for help, the matchmaker told her it was usual of American men.
Spivack claimed Fox concocted signs of abuse to exit her marriage and maintain her residential status, but a federal jury rejected the claim because Spivack failed to provide more compelling evidence, said Fox’s attorney David Orta.
The case received mass media attention and ended in a landmark decision: It was the first time a broker was held liable for her role in an abuse case.
The U.S. District Court in Baltimore ordered Spivack to pay $92,000 in compensatory damages and $341,000 in punitive damages to Fox.
If Spivack had followed federal regulations, “our client may not have found herself in the unfortunate situation she was in,” said Orta, a partner at Arnold & Porter.
The Washington firm represented Fox pro bono after being contacted by the Tahirih Justice Center, an immigrant women’s advocacy group.
In case studies, the center found men in abusive relationships expected to “have access to vulnerable women overseas that once here, they could keep under control,” said Jeanne Smoot, director of public policy at the center.
The Tahirih Justice Center, which analyzes public policy affecting immigrant women and children, supports the federal law regulating international marriage brokers, Smoot said, however more regulation could always be used.
The bill is really about the woman, the chief House sponsor said.
“It’s about consumer protection, allowing these women to make an informed decision,” said Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbot.
Haddaway-Riccio, whose bill has 35 co-sponsors, said it’s up to each state to enforce these regulations.
The Maryland bill codifies the federal statute, Haddaway-Riccio said, however, under the federal statute, the client volunteers their criminal and martial histories, adding: “While there is a federal law, there are loopholes.”
“Because there’s been a failure of implementation on a federal level, we thought it needed to be done on a state-to-state level,” she said.
The legislation is being revised in conference and would need a new vote before it can be sent to Gov. Martin O’Malley for consideration.
Although the regulation is meant to protect women and safeguard consumers, Spivack said the new law will only make women and her male clients more vulnerable.
Industry regulations create a “projection of false security to foreign women” who don’t take the time to do their own research, Spivack said; adding, it also encourages deceptive women to use the system for their own gain.
“A woman can be a terrorist, a criminal, all she has to do is say she was abused,” she said. “Several women circumvent the system. All they have to do is use their husbands as mules.”
Battered spouses, children or parents who seek safety and independence from abusers can apply for visas under the Violence Against Women Act. Approval of their abused status makes them eligible for a green card.
Svetlana Eremina wasn’t concerned with obtaining a green card when she joined Spivack’s network. And Ken Henkel, of Glen Burnie, wasn’t looking to marry a maid.
Like all Encounter International clients, Eremina and Henkel wanted a serious and committed relationship that could potentially lead to marriage.
“I wasn’t looking for someone to cook for me every night,” Henkel said.
Henkel, 43, found a wife in 36-year-old Eremina after a week and half of membership. Lifetime membership in Spivack’s network costs a one-time fee of $1,850 and expires once a client is engaged.
The two married in August 2009 after meeting at one of Encounters’ monthly mixers.
Henry Akinwande, 56, of Laurel, said Spivack thoroughly explained the risks before he flew across an ocean to collect his 27-year-old Ukrainian bride.
“There’s risk in everything you do in life,” he said. “Drinking water has risks, so does breathing air. When it’s someone you really like, you don’t really care.”
Spivack admitted most of her male clients are divorced, widowed or shunned by society because of physical defects. Many are attracted to the fantasy of blue-eyed, blond-haired, tall women. And most are just looking for a companion with family values, she said.
The women, too, are just trying to find men that will pay attention to them and create a safe and stable home environment, she said.
Spivack still considers herself a victim of immigration fraud, she said. She spends hours explaining the process and risks, retelling the story of her 2004 court case and defending her reputation to prospective clients.
Spivack has overcome major complications and remains focused on her business. Her network includes about 100 clients, a database of about 400 prospective brides and offices in Moscow, Yaroslavl and Kiev.
She celebrated the re-grand opening of Encounters and her 58th birthday with her “family of clients” in January.