By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Deborah Jeane Palfrey, accused of running an upscale prostitution service for a white-collar clientele in the Washington area, went on trial in federal court yesterday as a prosecutor warned jurors that they will hear "embarrassing" explicit testimony from call girls and customers, most of them appearing reluctantly under court orders and grants of immunity.
"You're going to hear from clients, johns, who perhaps haven't told their families . . . about their involvement with this agency," Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Connelly said. Describing the witness chair in U.S. District Judge James Robertson's courtroom as "the hottest seat in D.C. this week," she told the jurors they could "rest assured that very few" of those called to testify are looking forward to the experience.
She did not specify how many men would testify, but said that "over a dozen" women would be called to the witness stand.
Palfrey, 52, caused a stir in Washington by threatening to expose her customers by making her telephone records public. After she was indicted last spring, she said her defunct escort business, Pamela Martin & Associates, was "a legal, high-end erotic fantasy service" catering to clients "from the more refined walks of life here in the nation's capital."
She said the men paid $250 an hour to engage in sexual game-playing with the escorts she employed, mostly women in their 20s with college educations. If any of the women engaged in sex acts for money, Palfrey said, they did so without her knowledge.
Palfrey's attorney, Preston Burton, said in court yesterday that his witness list includes two names that have previously surfaced in the case: Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has publicly apologized to constituents without saying what he had done wrong; and Randall L. Tobias, who resigned as a deputy secretary of state after acknowledging to ABC News that he used Palfrey's service for massages.
Connelly said her witness list includes Harlan K. Ullman, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who developed a military doctrine that he called "shock and awe." Ullman's attorney, who was observing in court yesterday, would not comment on his client's involvement. Palfrey has identified Ullman as a customer.
"This case is not about prosecuting prostitution," Connelly told the jury in her opening statement. Palfrey, who started the escort service in 1993 and was running the business from her Northern California home when it folded in 2006, is charged with financial racketeering, money-laundering and using the mail for illegal purposes.
Authorities have said in court filings that the escort service generated about $2 million in illicit income for Palfrey.
Burton said his client ran her business openly and did nothing wrong, arranging for her escorts to meet clients in their homes and hotel rooms in the Washington area.
"Deborah Jeane Palfrey is not guilty," Burton told the jury. "She doesn't want to be here. You shouldn't be here. This case shouldn't be here. . . . My client did not sell sex. My client sold appointments."
He added: "She's like a taxi dispatcher. You call her up and she sends a taxi. What happens after that is between you and the driver."
As for the sex acts that the government alleges occurred, Burton said: "The people who decided what to do in those rooms . . . were all adults. Educated adults. Consenting adults. They decided what to do." Burton suggested that prosecutors have been overzealous in subpoenaing the escorts and clients and granting them immunity. The immunity will prevent them from invoking the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and declining to testify.
"Their lives in many instances are going to be ruined," he said.
Connelly said Palfrey advertised for escorts and clients in various publications, including Washington City Paper and the student newspaper at the University of Maryland in College Park. Women who applied by mailing photos and résumés to Palfrey were not necessarily aware that the service involved prostitution, Connelly said.
Authorities have said in court filings that Palfrey sought educated, socially refined young woman and that many of her escorts held professional jobs during the day.
After applying, Connelly said, women were required to meet with testers in the Washington area, men described by Connelly as "trusted, longtime clients" of Palfrey's service. The clients not only would verify for Palfrey that the women were attractive and skilled at legal sexual game-playing but also would "test" them by offering to pay for sex acts, Connelly said. She said women who passed the tests were hired.
The service employed "dozens of escorts" over the years and had "hundreds of clients . . . who paid thousands and thousands of dollars for sex," Connelly said.
She said the escorts, most of whom worked about three nights a week, sometimes meeting with several men per night, kept half the money paid by clients and mailed the rest to Palfrey in California in the form of postal money orders.
Palfrey was "the head, the mastermind, the madam," Connelly told the jury.
Burton denied the description. He said that Palfrey required all the women who worked for her to sign contracts, agreeing to abide by several rules. He gave jurors a PowerPoint presentation, showing them the contract and highlighting rule No. 5: "Individuals caught performing illegal activities of any nature will be terminated."
"That's not what an illegal business does," Burton said.