'A very lonely candle in a very ferocious wind'
A day with the DC Madam
n. Archaic pl. pal·freys
A saddle horse, especially one for a woman to ride.
-- American Heritage Dictionary IV
by Bill Keisling
Posted May 4, 2007 10 am -- "Blowback," observes James Wolcott in the February 2007 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, "is a bitch."
Deborah Jeane Palfrey
photo by David Y. Lee
copyright © 2007 Atlas Press
Unfortunately for Mr. Wolcott, bad timing is not just an embarrassment in the boudoir. Wolcott's lamenting article, titled, "Why are British Sex Scandals So Much Better than Ours?" appeared only a month or so before the eruption of what by some measures could turn out to be the biggest sex scandal in American history.
Let's call it, with an appropriately stiff upper lip, the Deborah Jeane Palfrey "DC Madam" affair.
Of course, writer Wolcott's complaint is well founded and entirely reasonable, even if not all that original. The American undervaluation of the Great Sex Scandal has long been lamented in cultured and enlightened society.
Consider the wholesomeness, healthfulness, and all-around economy of a good old-fashioned sex scandal. Compared to bribery and defense contractor scandals, they're lots of fun, and don't cost the public much money.
That's why we here at yardbird.com, and trained professionals working for the Walt Disney Co., have been toiling feverishly to bring the discerning American public a higher grade of sex scandal, one every bit as big and wide open as the United States itself.
Blowback, it turns out, isn't the only thing that can be a real bitch.
On Friday afternoon, April 27, 2007, I received an email from the DC Madam herself, Jeane Palfrey.
She wrote that she and her civil attorney, Montgomery Blair Sibley, would be attending a federal court hearing in Washington DC the following Monday, April 30.
The Internal Revenue Service had seized her assets. So the United States Government, under court order, was putting Palfrey up in a DC hotel near, of all places, the White House.
"Perhaps you can meet Blair and me in the lobby at 9am?" she asked. "PS - You can tag along if you would like and meet the ABC folks as well."
After I received the invitation we spoke a little over the phone. She hinted of a bombshell or two: my writings, she intimated, had caused an important "dot to be connected" with her own case.
I had written about Palfrey at the end of March, when I predicted the whole ham-handled mess of her case could soon become an international sensation.
In my essay I decried the unfortunate, recent death of an alleged Baltimore-area prostitute named Brandy Britton. Britton's hanging death was an apparent suicide. Britton had been, at least in part, driven over the edge by vicious attacks published in the Baltimore and DC press. Britton was yet another victim of over-the-top Maryland corruption, and a sick press that allows the corruption to fester.
Brandy Britton hanged herself in her foreclosed home at the end of January 2007, a few days before she was to stand trial. We'd never hear from Brandy Britton again, and that seemed to suit some people just fine. The same thing shouldn't happen to Palfrey, I wrote. Let's hear what she has to say.
The essay apparently struck a nerve with Jeane Palfrey. Hence, partly, the invitation to meet with her. It would also turn out that she'd been busy reading my book, The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna. She seemed to even have become somewhat of a fan.
Real life mimics crime novel
Monday, April 30, rolled around, and at the appointed hour I strolled into the spacious lobby of the Washington hotel. After a moment or two I spotted Palfrey's attorney, Blair Sibley.
Sibley is a tall, lanky man with neatly trimmed, graying hair. With him sat a photographer enlisted to record the day's events.
We sat for a moment in the overstuffed chairs of the hotel lobby. Right off the bat, Sibley repeated that they had been able to "connect an important dot" involving one of the parties mentioned in my March essay.
Who? I asked.
Not here, Sibley replied. He looked around the busy lobby. Perhaps, he suggested, we'd talk in the cab on the ride over to the courthouse. I let it drop for a moment. Then, instinctively, I returned to the subject.
"Brandy Britton," Sibley said softly, letting the words roll from his tongue.
"What about her?" I asked.
"She worked for Jeane," Sibley said.
A review of Palfrey's copious phone records revealed that Palfrey had sent the recently dispatched Baltimore prostitute on many jobs. I whistled softly, between my teeth.
Real-life crime novel:
The late Brandy Britton worked for the DC Madam.
To read more about Brandy Britton click here >>
It was like a chapter out of a crime novel. Britton, now an important witness to all this, had many "upscale" clients in high places in Maryland. Now she wasn't going to be doing any talking about anyone.
Brandy Britton turned up dead just as all this was breaking in the national press. Her death, no doubt, proved highly convenient for some people.
I let it sink in. I exchanged small talk with Sibley. A few minutes passed before a woman I recognized as Palfrey, the now-infamous "DC Madam," appeared in the lobby. We gentlemen stood and exchanged greetings with her.
Palfrey turned out to be a slim, attractive woman, about five-feet-five inches tall. She had long black hair, cut in bangs at her forehead. Don't believe the camera doesn't lie. Her face, in person, showed none of the puffiness exhibited on television. The horizontal lines of the boob tube draw cartoons, stretching some faces like silly putty.
Palfrey struck me as an intelligent, articulate, and tough-as-nails businesswoman. She ran a tight ship, I sensed.
There was something else. A quality of vulnerability hung about her. Even when talking with us, she seemed laconic. Even in our company, she seemed alone, and to herself.
I somehow felt like I'd known her a long time, though we'd just met. Palfrey grew up south of Pittsburgh, in Charleroi, PA. Maybe, I thought, it was her Pennsylvania face. A face like many I've seen in my life.
She reminded me of someone in small-town America you'd gone to high school with, and lost touch with. Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a little like Norma Jeane Mortenson, had gone off to find her fortune in the big world, figured out how to sell herself to powerful men, and now risked being thrown down and snuffed out. As Reg Dwight sings, a very lonely candle in a very ferocious wind.
Deborah Jeane, you had to think, how'd it come to this?
I had a few questions of my own. Palfrey, instead, wanted to talk about numbers.
"You'll never guess the number of the hotel room the government put me in," she beams. We were killing time sitting in the lobby. She holds out the paper wallet containing her plastic room key. "911," she says.
Ironies abound. Three days earlier, George W. Bush's deputy Secretary of State, and AIDS czar, Randall Tobias, had suddenly resigned from office when ABC News had tracked a phone number to him from Palfrey's phone records. And more shoes were ready to drop.
911 had been the sick cornerstone of a do-nothing Bush Administration. Now a woman who threatened the same administration with mass resignations had been put up in a room, paid for by the feds, with the same haunting number: 911.
It was, she pointed out, also a recurrent number in my book, The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna.
Attorney Sibley soon announced the time had come for us to take a cab to the federal courthouse.
(L to R) Writer Keisling, Deborah Jeane Palfrey and
Montgomery Blair Sibley on way to courthouse
photo by David Y. Lee
copyright © 2007 Atlas Press
In the taxi on the way to the courthouse Palfrey, Sibley and I sat in the back seat. The photographer all the while snapped pictures from the front. Sibley's cell phone, by this time, rang incessantly.
I asked attorney Sibley about his name. His family name, "Sibley," I pointed out, is a prominent one in Washington. Yes, he replied, but he was barely related to those Sibleys. On the other hand, he said, he was a Blair -- hence his middle name. (He prefers in fact to be called by his middle name, "Blair.") His family had lost its residence, Blair House, to the United States Government.
Francis Preston Blair, a newspaper publisher and member of President Andy Jackson's kitchen cabinet, purchased Blair House in 1842. His son, Montgomery Blair, served as postmaster general in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet.
Blair House is where President Harry Truman lived while the White House, and the world, was being redrawn. It was at Blair House where Truman, in 1950, napping upstairs, escaped assassination at the hands of Puerto Rican nationalists.
One of Truman's would-be attackers mortally shot a White House policeman outside Blair House. The dying guard's last act was to shoot and kill one of the attackers. Rising from his nap, Truman stood in the upstairs window watching the gunfight in the street below. A passerby had to yell at the president to take cover.
All this dramatic rabble-rousing history runs in Montgomery Blair Sibley's blood.
"The government basically took The Blair House from us," Sibley almost sighs. Later he would tell me that valued family possessions remained in the house, and that the government refused to give them back.
Today Montgomery Blair Sibley is a forfeiture lawyer who spends his time trying to get other families' possessions back from the government. Like the property confiscated from Palfrey by the IRS.
Sibley said he'd grown up in Rochester, New York, where he spent some early days of his career as a prosecutor.
How had he come to represent Palfrey, I asked? That itself was a rather interesting story, Palfrey volunteered. After the IRS seized her property in 2006, Palfrey said, Sibley sent her a letter.
"What was odd about his letter is that it was addressed to me at my house, where I never get mail," she said. "I get my mail at a post office box."
Palfrey replied to Sibley's bread-upon-the-water missive, and hired him. She is a woman of intuition, I began to discern.
"This is all kind of by the seat-of-your pants," Sibley giggled at one point. Meaning, of course, improvisational and spontaneous. Yet, everything seemed to be falling in place, he mused.
Someone had sure opened a can of Whoop Ass, I had to think.
Sibley had the cab driver drop us around back of the courthouse. A large press contingent was expected, and he wanted Palfrey to meet them on his terms. Alighting from the cab, we walked around the building and immediately spotted the waiting press.
About two dozen or so excited reporters and cameramen crouched by the courthouse entrance. We smiled and chatted as we walked through the clamor.
Once inside, the first stop was to check in with the office of Pretrial Services, responsible for Palfrey while she awaits trial. The Pretrial Services officer came out. Greeting us in a friendly manner, he asked us into his office. He seemed a good chap.
Palfrey, when at home in California, was ordered to wear a home confinement anklet. Palfrey didn't want to wear it. "It's just to harass and humiliate me," she told me, rage boiling beneath the surface.
Among today's business in court would be Palfrey's request to bag the anklet. The Pretrial Services officer seemed open to the idea.
We bid him good day, and set out for the courtroom.
The great hallways of the courthouse were long, high, and Oz-like. At any moment you expected the Cowardly Lion to come charging out and hurl himself through a window.
Blair Sibley and I walked Dorothy down the hallway, on her way to confront the man behind the curtain.
Welcome to the monkeyhouse
Washington press corps reporters compare notes:
'Not exactly HL Mencken'
At last we rounded a corner and again encountered reporters. They swung around the courtroom door.
We passed inside, and the press followed us in. Sibley went through the gates with Palfrey. He sat with her at the defense table. I sat in the first row of the gallery, taking in the wooden-paneled courtroom.
The reporters, about three dozen of them, at least, filtered in and took seats around me. It would be nice to write something colorful about them. But, for the most part, they seemed rather bland.
Nothing like the old days when, say, flamboyant writers like H.L. Mencken poked fun of monkey trials. This gray bunch seemed to want a monkey trial, and chattered for it while chewing their nuts and scratching each other's tails.
In the distance, outside this monkeyhouse, I knew primal drums were beating.
The prosecutors took their place at their table to the right. They tried mightily not to appear terrorized by the gallery stuffed with national and international scribblers and tv orangutans.
The bailiffs and the court reporters swung in from the jungle. At last came the command for all to rise, and in came the judge.
'A sad day'
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler called the courtroom to order. Kessler's gray hair exploded like a dandelion puff above her robes. Bookish glasses framed her face. Again, luck was with Palfrey.
The DC Madam could hardly have wished for a better or, perhaps, more sympathetic judge.
Judge Gladys Kessler
Appointed by President Clinton to the federal bench in 1994, Kessler is a Democrat who was recommended by the National Organization of Women to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. She sits on the board of Our Place, DC, an organization devoted to helping women in the criminal justice system, a cause for which Palfrey herself has worked.
Judge Kessler heard the first court challenge to George W. Bush's draconian Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which governs the shameful maltreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In that case Kessler told government lawyers, "These allegations ... describe disgusting treatment, that if proven, is treatment that is cruel, profoundly disturbing and violative" of American and international law banning torture.
Judge Kessler went on to tell Bush Justice Department lawyers in that case, "I know it's a sad day when a federal judge has to ask a DOJ lawyer this, but I'm asking you -- why should I believe them?"
Now, in front of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Judge Kessler began the hearing. Her head at times cocked to the side, Kessler seemed well aware of the press in her courtroom, and beyond.
The primary business of the day was Palfrey's request to fire her court-appointed attorney, DC public defender A.J. Kramer. Kramer seemed an amiable-enough fellow. He now sat hunched over at the defense table. He was a mid-sized man with thick, graying hair.
Deborah Jeane Palfrey however in this circumstance had no use for an amiable fellow. Palfrey complained it was a marriage gone bad. She had irreconcilable differences with Kramer, she told the court.
Though I did not discuss the matter in any depth with Palfrey and Sibley, I came away with the understanding that at least part of the problem lie in the fact that public defender Kramer disagreed with Palfrey's decision to release her telephone records to the press.
That fateful decision certainly seemed to be playing much to Palfrey's favor.
Truth is, because of the resulting press sensation generated by her phone list, Palfrey was now being handled with kid gloves. If every street-corner hooker and dime store cowboy enjoyed court hearings like this, stuffed with reporters, our justice system might actually work.
These reporters, unfortunately, seemed unaware of Heisenberg's uncertainty principles; they seemed to simply clamor for the names connected with Palfrey's phone numbers. I heard no one clamoring for full justice, and the whole truth.
Blair Sibley kicked things off by jauntily going to the lectern and telling Judge Kessler that since Palfrey was essentially without criminal counsel he'd sit with her at the defense table. "I will explain things to her," he volunteered.
Judge Kessler said no thanks. Sibley wasn't Palfrey's criminal lawyer for this hearing, she said. But he was certainly welcome to sit in the courtroom. With that Sibley left the lectern. He came through the gates, and sat with the rest of us in the gallery.
This left Palfrey alone at the table with Kramer.
In short order Judge Kessler dealt with the issues before her. She'd allow Palfrey to ditch public defender Kramer. But she would not sanction the public funding of Palfrey's barrister of choice, an octogenarian New York lawyer renowned for defending eros purveyors like Larry Flynt. It's been such a long time since we've had a good sex scandal in this country the experienced lawyers are getting old. Among other benefits to society, this case could rejuvenate the legal art.
Judge Kessler said she'd be looking for a defense lawyer on a list kept by the court for indigents like Palfrey. The devil, Palfrey, even the court has a list. Hopefully Kessler's list does not overlap with any of the names on Palfrey's extensive list, I mused.
One imagines the difficulty of Kessler's task. Washington is a small town. How many prominent male lawyers have no conflict with clients on Palfrey's list? How many want to risk their careers by nuking the old boy network?
One non-empathetic newspaper reporter later wrote that Judge Kessler at this point in the hearing seemed to be talking down to Palfrey, supposedly talking to her like a child, but I didn't see it that way.
The federal judge appropriately addressed, it seemed to me, a pro se criminal defendant in tricky straights. Kessler warned Palfrey that the charges against her were serious. She said she believed Palfrey understood this, that Palfrey appeared to be an intelligent woman.
Palfrey nodded her head yes.
Meanwhile, the real children's network programmers sat around the prosecution table. Three rather tense looking federal prosecutors, led by AUSA William Cowden, sat at the table with the Pretrial Services officer.
Cowden was a balding, younger man with a roundish face and a demeanor reminiscent of a man caught in a whirlpool. That sucking sound you heard was his career going down the loo.
Little so far has been made of the obvious incompetence of the handling of this case. That this case was brought in the first place demonstrates the monumental misjudgment, disjunction, and downright chowder-headedness in the Bush Justice Department.
Let's see here: we have a woman who's been running a DC escort service for a decade and a half. What problems might we possibly encounter?
Before you can say blastoff! Who's calling the Madam?
Let's say Robert Kennedy walks in to see his brother, President John F. Kennedy. He relates the news that they're thinking of busting a DC madam with a 10- or 15,000-name client list. Jack Kennedy, the statesman that he is, I submit, would question the wisdom of this course of action. Jack would certainly cite national security concerns, and other considerations that are none of Bobby's damned business.
No such deliberative parley apparently took place between George W. Bush and Attorney General Roberto Gonzalez. Alas, both were too busy peddling profane fantasies involving war and partisan lawyer politics.
It's a reasonable assumption that there may be serious national security concerns involving the prosecution of Deborah Jeane Palfrey.
Washington is known internationally as a moderately wide-open town. It is also in no small part a secretly gay town. Foreigners, sometimes very important foreigners, often come to the U.S. capital expecting a good time.
Ambassadors get lonely too -- all over the world. In Ottawa, Canada's ctv reports, "This town has got pages of escort services, mainly to service lonely diplomats and I'm sure there are politicians that use them."
A Saudi prince or minister's indiscretions could spark a revolution back home--.
And let's not forget Palfrey's many clients who are boys in uniform, working for the Pentagon. These are red-blooded American boys we're talking about.
George C. Scott memorably describes the Pentagon mentality in Dr. Strangelove: "I know how it is, baby. Tell you what you do. You just start your countdown, and old Bucky'll be back before you can say 'Blastoff!'"
Your fantasy calling
Palfrey and I at one point discuss the genesis and contents of her now-famous phone list.
How had the men's numbers ended up on her phone records? I asked. Men would telephone Palfrey's business, Pamela Martin and Associates, she explained.
"I'd call a girl and make arrangements. Then I'd call the guy back and tell him it was all set, that so-and-so would be there at such-and-such a time." It was the callback numbers that now threatened the men.
This time ABC News would be calling back.
How was it, I asked Palfrey, that the government had not confiscated her phone records when they'd raided her houses in 2006? That was an interesting question, she allowed. She said she'd been abroad on a trip to Germany when she learned that the feds had searched her houses and had frozen her investment accounts.
On returning home, she saw that the federal agents, too busy carting off her property, had repeatedly marched by the forty-six pounds of phone records, leaving them undisturbed.
They apparently were fruitlessly searching for a nonexistent little black book.
Now, at Palfrey's court hearing before Judge Kessler, the Pretrial Services officers rose and told the judge that he, and his counterparts in California, recommended Palfrey be released from electronic home monitoring.
One of the prosecutors rose to object, saying Palfrey was a flight risk who'd once jumped bond. The judge replied she was inclined to follow the recommendations of the Pretrial Services specialists.
The Pretrial Services officer sat at the defense table, across from the AUSAs, shaking his head in agreement with the judge. "I'm going to remove the requirement for electronic monitoring," Kessler told the courtroom. Palfrey's bonds were slowly coming off.
About then AUSA Cowden rose to beef about the postings on Palfrey's website. He complained that she'd posted, among other things, court filings. He was, it seemed to me, testing the waters to gauge whether Judge Kessler would be sympathetic to a gag order, or perhaps, as everyone feared, a court seal on the phone records, which would instantly end all this fun, yet perhaps rescue this stink of a case, and Cowden's career.
Cowden seemed to be hoping that Kessler, too, feared the trembling groundswell of the threatening media explosion.
Judge Kessler would have none of it. She said as long as Palfrey's web postings accurately informed the public about what was going on she would not interfere.
Cowden now looked like a man slowly being sucked out the window of a very high altitude airplane.
This was not how this case was supposed to be going. He was supposed to be the hero. He was the one who was supposed to be riding a media wave, ridding the world of prostitutes and fantasy scum.
Cowden doesn't want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That's the last thing he wants. The government wants its own sick fantasy.
The public unfortunately isn't buying the government's fantasy. Not so long as the larger truth hovers somewhere out there, in the lines of Palfrey's slowly circulating phone lists.
Before long the judge tells us the hearing is over. School's out. Everyone but the prosecutors seem to be enjoying things so much that Kessler has to tell the mob to leave the courtroom to make room for her next hearing.
I joined Palfrey and Sibley at the gate and followed them through the hubbub to the hallway.
Looking out a window down to the street below, I saw the waiting mob of reporters, maybe ten deep. They'd formed an orchestra pit-sized semi-circle around the empty microphones. They were all waiting for Debrorah Jeane Palfrey.
Attorney Sibley looks on while Palfrey reads her statement to the press photo by David Y. Lee
copyright © 2007 Atlas Press
The three of us walked from the courthouse and stood behind the microphones. CNN had gone live. Reporters and camera drew close. Some of the fellows crouched on the ground, scribbling in their notepads.
Sibley spoke first. A born natural. He swatted at the press. He announcing that Palfrey had a statement to make, but that she would take no questions from the likes of them.
Palfrey read her statement. She quietly apologized to those who had been outed, but said she had to defend herself, and needed witnesses.
She said to the press, and the public, "Put aside the titillation of the who's who list -- at least in part -- and instead investigate the disturbing genesis, the confounding evolution and the equally alarming continuation of this matter. I believe there is something very rotten at the core of my circumstance."
Sibley took some questions. Mostly questions about the names on the list. Standard, predictable questions asked by reporters who liked hearing the sounds of their own voices.
Then came the absurd questions.
Didn't this amount to blackmail? one asked. It's called due process of law, Sibley shot back.
One wag asked why the public had to know about any of this.
Another genius put forth the interesting proposition that the johns on Palfrey's phone list had some sort of constitutional right to privacy.
To some in this curious press corps the First Amendment can go to hell. Reporters can be thrown in jail. Library reading lists can be poured over by G-Men. You couldn't find a disparaging word they'd written about any of that. In their minds, fat cats supposedly had some right to privacy when they phone for a call girl.
Sibley at last had enough of the questions. By this time a limousine had arrived at curbside and Palfrey and I followed Sibley through the pack of reporters. We were being jostled. "Get out of the way!" Sibley was yelling.
Palfrey, Sibley and the photographer jumped into the limo's back seat. I suddenly found myself walled off by a line of cameramen.
"Get in, Bill!" Palfrey yelled.
I fought my way into the front seat of the limo, slammed the door. Off we sped. Sibley told the driver, a young Pakistani, to drive around the Washington Monument, in case we were being followed.
Then he had the driver return to the hotel, where Palfrey planned to meet up with ABC News producers for lunch.
We waited a few minutes in the hotel lobby. We spoke about the morning's events. Sibley and I told an uncertain Palfrey that the court hearing had gone well for her. Sibley's phone kept ringing.
After a few minutes ABC producer Justin Rood arrived. Rood's associate, Rhonda Schwartz, had planned to join us too, but Schwartz was unexpectedly called away when her 17-year-old niece tragically and inexplicably died in her sleep.
That bad news hanging over us, Palfrey, Sibley, Rood and I got into the limo and rode over to the Mayflower Hotel for lunch.
On the way we discussed whether johns and women could be expected to voluntarily come forward to testify on Palfrey's behalf.
I said I doubted it. I'd recently read an article about Japanese sex slaves, known as "comfort women," who'd been forced and tricked into the trade by Japan during and after World War II.
Some estimated that at least 70,000 women had serviced American GIs in Japan after the war, yet less than 300 had come forward for restitution.
"Why?" someone asked.
"The shame?" Sibley suggested.
Lunch at the Mayflower
The limo pulled up at the Mayflower and we got out. Palfrey noted the elegance of the place. The lobby is often used by movie crews to film hotel scenes in DC.
Palfrey and Sibley unwind in limo after court appearance
photo by David Y. Lee
copyright © 2007 Atlas Press
In his Vanity Fair article, coincidentally, James Wolcott repeats "rumors" found in "supermarket tabloids and gossip blogs," that Laura Bush had checked into the Mayflower in 2006 amid gossip about a tryst between George W. and Condolezza Rice.
We went into the restaurant. We were led to a table in an isolated corner. We ordered lunch. This was turning out to be one of the better times I've had with an indigent in a while.
Everyone's cell phone kept ringing. Palfrey took a call from her mother, Blanche. Blanche lived in retirement in Florida. Blanche told her daughter that Sibley looked better each time Blanche saw him on tv.
Palfrey put me on the phone to talk with her mother. She sounded like a sweet little old lady. She worried about her daughter. She told me she was proud of Deborah Jeane, that maybe things were turning her daughter's way.
Today's tv appearance had gone better than the last, Blanche offered. She particularly liked how the three of us chatted and smiled as we strolled into the courthouse. Palfrey at last said good-bye to her mother and we returned to the business at hand.
Talk turned to the newly deceased Baltimore prostitute, Brandy Britton. ABC News had found many instances of Britton's phone number among the records, Rood told us.
Palfrey said she thought she could remember talking with Britton. She remembered Britton looking, "like Cameron Diaz, from the neck up."
Part of Palfrey's confusion about her employee Brandy Britton was a sad fantasy of age. Britton, a Ph.D. sociologist-turned-hooker, had lied on her escort service resume. On her web page Britton advertised her age as 29. She had actually been in her forties.
I asked producer Rood about concerns I'd read on the web that only Republican johns were being outed.
"What's on the list is what we have to work with," Rood shrugged. ABC had been given only the last four years of Palfrey's list. Republicans had been controlling Washington for six years, and it was slim pickings for Democrats, with hookers and other largesse.
Rood explained they had been successful in identifying "the vast majority" of the numbers on the list, "about 90 percent," he estimated. "We've gone to the limits of what we can legally do," to identify owners of the numbers, he said.
One problem was, he explained, that cell phone numbers turn over, sometimes several times. Today you can't necessarily discover who may have owned the number, say, in 2002.
If there was any cherry picking going on, I discerned, it was a spoken desire to expose the bigwigs and the hypocrites, and to protect the little joes.
"The vast majority of the numbers are ordinary guys," Palfrey said, "who don't deserve to be outed." Rood shook his head in agreement. I got the idea that Palfrey, the rest of the list up her sleeve, exerted a powerful influence in the selection of whom to name.
The problem was, I reminded them, some of those "little joes" might actually be making the call for a powerful boss. In the case of Congressman Duke Cunningham, a limousine driver on behalf of an obscure defense contractor procured hookers.
A lot of the little joes could also be up-and-coming party operatives in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Shouldn't the public know about them?
It seemed like these concerns could be worked out over time.
At the time I was satisfied that Rood and ABC News were handling things in a fair, even-handed manner, and that the network seemed to be doing a trustworthy job. If they could get the story on the air--.
Rood mentioned the kinds of men who, he said, shortly would be exposed. A White House economist. A think tanker. A CEO. Unfortunately, not much of a showing from Congress, he seemed to sigh.
The story was about to morph yet again, I learned. Almost all the discussion in the press till then concerned the men on Palfrey's list. As this story was taking off, particularly after Brandy Britton committed suicide, I'd noticed that editors had taken to assigning mostly women reporters to cover Palfrey.
Was it just PC cover? Or do they suppose women reporters are more attune to the travails of the Working Gal, and can better punish those beaver-pounding dogs called men on behalf of all the wronged, fairer sex?
Some of these girl reporters can even spin a saucy line. But do they get what's going on?
Carol D. Leonnig, for example, in the May 3, 2007 Washington Post, writes, "how nervous some men in Washington are...."
That's only half the story, isn't it? ABC News producer Rood explained that some of the next shoes to drop would be high heels. Among the phone numbers were those belonging to the women working for Palfrey, he noted.
ABC News found the numbers of a Howard University professor, a paralegal in a prominent Washington law firm, and other highly placed women, he said.
Loneliness, despair, and deceit, after all, are not limited to men.
On selling fantasies
After lunch we said good-bye to producer Rood. Sibley suggested we take the limo on a sight-seeing tour of DC. We rode over to the capitol. The photographer snapped photos of Palfrey on the capitol grounds, the white dome in the background.
It was a pretty day. A jostling breeze blew across the capitol grounds. Tourists with happy faces drifted by.
Deborah Jeane Palfrey at U.S. Capitol
photo by David Y. Lee
copyright © 2007 Atlas Press
Watching the photographer snap her pictures, Sibley noticed that Deborah Jeane didn't look so happy. He tried to crack a joke to make her smile. We both tried cracking jokes to cheer her up.
A human response to a woman in a sad spot. Afterwards we rode the limo back to the hotel.
On the way past the Supreme Court building I rested a cheek against the headrest in the leather back seat of the limousine. What about her dad? I asked Deborah Jeane.
He was a sailor who never finished school, she said. Blanche, her mom, actually had more schooling than her dad. Her dad died a few years back, of cancer, she said. "He smoked all his life."
She talked a little bit about growing up in old Charleroi, in Pennsylvania's rusted Mon Valley. "It's one of the poorest areas of the state," I told Sibley.
"Is that right?" he said.
"It's really been flat on its back for about twenty years," Palfrey said.
Did she have any brothers or sisters? I asked.
"I have a sister. She's stuck in life as a waitress."
Say what you will, Deborah Jeane Palfrey is no longer stuck in the Mon Valley, Western PA. Her fantasy service was her ticket out.
The unspoken joke of all this, I hear again and again, is that Palfrey wasn't just running a "fantasy" service. It was prostitution, they tell me, not fantasy.
We rode the limo past the oversized, grandiose monuments in Washington DC, past the emblems and storehouses of our collective national fantasies and our distractions, away from our isolated Congress, which seems psychopathically unable to deal or grapple with everyday problems of everyday people.
Deborah Jeane Palfrey sold fantasy, all right.In the end she was busted, and now she is hounded, for selling a better grade of fantasy, a more believable fantasy, a much warmer fantasy, than the government and the press can sell.