Some would say that we are a strong country, an international superpower, because of what boils down to a system of “checks and balances”. Of course this means primarily that something can’t be passed into law without a general consensus, especially between opposing parties and the person we’ve elected to represent our country. But it also means that we strive for some sort of balance between conservatives and liberals, and all the areas of gray opinion in between.
For escorts, it is this gray area that lends itself to so much trouble, and some unfortunate suffering. Escorting is legal, especially when a service is registered as a small business. Prostitution is not legal (except for a few counties in Nevada). For the most part, voters seem content with this arrangement. Yet in practice the gray area lends itself towards hypocrisy. There’s nothing questionable about registering an escort business and connecting consensual adults for a fee. As most services point out, anything more intimate than time spent is chosen consensually and unrelated to the money exchanged for the service. Yet many times that consensual line is crossed, only to later have the line be denied as ever having existed at all.
And especially when power and politics get involved, the vocabulary seems much murkier.
Which is just it was for Jeane Palfrey, the DC Madam who was hit with a 55-year sentence for money-laundering and racketeering after her legal escort and sexual fantasy service was judged to be a prostitution ring.
Palfrey’s background, believe it or not, was in law. She graduated from Rollins College with a criminal justice degree and then spent some time studying at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. When she couldn’t make enough supporting herself as a paralegal and then cocktail waitress, she turned to escorting. But she was appalled at the inherent drug abuse and mismanagement of how escort services were run, and decided to open her own service.
So far she sounds pretty smart and progressive, no?
In 1990 she was charged with pimping, pandering and extortion and spent 18 months in jail. Evidently the time served shook her up and she swore she’d never do anything illegal to get her sent to prison again.
Upon being set free, she started Pamela Martin and Associates, the escort service that would bring her in over $2 million over the course of her 13 years and fattened her little black book with some powerful names. She ran her service legally out of her California home, fielding calls from clients in the DC area and hiring escorts with ads in local newspapers. As is advised with anyone who wants to run an escort service, she clarified what the service provided, and what it did not: she said she provided “a high-end sexual fantasy service — and that any actual sexual activity was against the rules, and clearly stated when employees were hired.”
Yet in 2006 an undercover raid on her home began a series of events that unraveled how futile her progressive thinking and careful planning were. As a result of the raid, a $500,000 account was frozen while she was charged with money laundering and her service fell into the spotlight.
And with that spotlight came an incredible public and political backlash.
When it came out that she had so many powerful Washington names in her book, phone calls from lawyers came flooding in, in hopes that something could be arranged to protect the identity of their clients. As her service was legal it wasn’t a matter of imprisonment that scared their clients, but of public knowledge and embarrassment. For many of the clients, their time with the escorts was part of their private life, unknown to their constituents and, sometimes, spouses. So while legally they were clear, socially their actions would be up for moral debate.
Such was the case for Republican David Vitter. He had already had his share of scandals during a 2002 gubernatorial race when questions of a relationship with a prostitute came up: he said he dropped out of the race to work on some marital problems. Again, in his 2004 senate race, he was accused of having spent time with a New Orleans prostitute. He defied the claims as being entirely untrue, and confirmed his seat later that year.
When Palfrey’s list of phone numbers was unveiled, a journalist for Hustler connected a phone number to the Senator, who had called her several times over the course of two years. Two of the calls were made during voting hours in the House.
After being revealed Vitter stood side by side with his wife once again in a press conference, apologized for his actions, stated that he had already sought the forgiveness of his wife and god and related his time in marriage counseling. He chose not to step down (a move his constituents supported as he would have been replaced by a Democratic congressman). This was horribly ironic, since he had secured his U.S. Representative seat in 1999 by a seceding congressman who stepped down due to an adulterous relationship having come into the spotlight. Vitter commented at the time that President Bill Clinton should have followed suit after his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Vitter kept his Senate seat, found a way around testifying at Palfrey’s trial and, while she was accused of running a prostitution ring, he was never charged with the illegal act of solicitation.
Other powerful names came up on Palfrey’s list: former State Department official Randall L. Tobias, who was the deputy secretary of state to Condoleezza Rice, was welcomed back to his home state of Indiana and now resides on the board of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. Harlan K. Ullman, co-creator of the military theory of “shock and awe” that was applied to the invasion of Iraq, is currently a senior associate on the web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There was even speculation that President Clinton himself might have had his name on that list.
Because of this presence of power, both sides of the table had much to play with.
Palfrey released an alleged 46 pounds of telephone transcripts to a media outlet, hoping they would connect the phone numbers with clients who might be able to testify on her behalf. Though she was being charged with running a prostitution ring, she stuck to her claim that she ran a legitimate escort and fantasy service, and “…anyone who received or provided sex for money disobeyed her directives, and in some cases, their own «signed contracts»”. If those clients came forward they could testify to this fact. If they refused and her charge was continued, then why was the government not also charging her clients and employees with prostitution and solicitation themselves? She continued, “I would expect the government — as a matter of fairness and to avoid any hint of selective prosecution — to charge each and every individual with the crimes of money laundering, racketeering and/or conspiracy as well”.
On the other side of the legal table, the presence of such powerful names brought the trial from a state or municipal level to a federal level—one of very few circumstances to do so. A confirmation of immunity brought 13 employees and 3 clients to testify against Palfrey, with none to come to her defense. She was sentenced to a maximum of 55 years in jail.
But for what? In her 13 years as the head of a very successful, legal service she connected thousands of clients, who had sought her out of their own free will, with women who had clearly done the same. No one was hurt directly by her actions, and many of her clients were in positions of authority and still utilized her service anyway.
So how did Palfrey’s story end in her being sentenced, and none other? Why did she not come out on top, like former madam Heidi Fleiss or the countless politicians and celebrities whose careers boomed after their trysts were uncovered?
None of her clients were charged with anything. None of her escort employees were brought personally into a public spotlight. Palfrey took all the blame for what she defended to her death was a legal business. That she had outlined the rules of her service, but no one who broke those rules was ever charged.
Which is why the story is so sad for many who read about it.
After her untimely demise, journalist Dan Moldea said, “I liked her. She was a good person, she was kind, funny, she had a sense of humor, and what she may have done in business, I bring no judgment to that. You have to remember that all those who worked for her service and those who used it—none of them were held to account, or punished.”