Madam Story Keeps Mum On Clientele

Deborah Jeane Palfrey gave ABC the phone records to help her defense.
Deborah Jeane Palfrey gave ABC the phone records to help her defense. (By Jay Mallin -- Bloomberg News)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

During several weeks of calls to possible clients of the woman dubbed the D.C. Madam, Brian Ross of ABC confirmed that some fairly important people had used her escort service.

But when he put together last night's segment for "20/20," the network's chief investigative reporter decided against outing anyone beyond the two people who already had been identified.

"Their names won't mean anything to our audience," Ross said in an interview. "They just weren't newsworthy enough." Instead, he said, "what we really wanted to do is demonstrate the range of official Washington" involved with the escort service.

Their positions, as described by Ross, made them important, at least by the capital's standards: A federal prosecutor, who recently died. A handful of military officers, including the head of an Air Force intelligence squadron. A senior official at the World Bank and other officials at NASA and the International Monetary Fund. Corporate CEOs. And lobbyists, both Democratic and Republican.

But their relative anonymity spared them exposure as a result of the decision by Ross, "20/20" Executive Producer David Sloan and Senior Vice President Kerry Smith.

Ever since Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who is contesting federal prostitution-related charges, gave ABC the last four years of her phone records on March 15, Ross and his news division have faced a journalistic dilemma: Should they name some of the roughly 1,000 clients they identified? Many media outlets, including The Washington Post and a number of cable news programs, kept up a steady drumbeat of coverage. ABC News has posted several updates about the story on its Web site.

Ross said he personally called 20 to 30 people on the list. "Many were very honest and said 'I dreaded this call coming,' " he said.

In one case, a man who told the escort service he was a White House economist turned out to have engaged in résumé inflation. He actually works across the street as an analyst for the Office of Thrift Supervision, Ross said.

"One guy swore to me up and down it couldn't have been him, he loves his wife," Ross said. The man, a well-known member of a conservative think tank, was right: Palfrey, Ross said, had repeatedly misdialed his number by confusing the 202 and 301 area codes.

ABC looked into women on Palfrey's phone list as well, including a legal secretary at the prestigious law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who has been placed on leave, and a lieutenant commander in the Navy. The network seems to have exercised some compassion, with Ross saying the commander would likely face court-martial if identified.

Palfrey said on "20/20" that Brandy Britton, a former University of Maryland Baltimore County professor who hanged herself in her Howard County home in January, had worked for her to make some extra money. At the time of her death, Britton was about to go on trial on four counts of prostitution. "She couldn't take the humiliation," Palfrey said. "Her whole life was destroyed."

In the ABC interview, Palfrey said she was selling a legal "service," which she likened to obtaining a haircut. "There is no romance in it," she said. Palfrey vowed not to spend a day in jail "because I'm shy about bringing in the deputy secretary of whatever."


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