By Dana Milbank
Friday, April 11, 2008
The alleged D.C. Madam once threatened the likes of a United States senator, a deputy secretary of state, and the man who created the war doctrine of "shock and awe." But the Madam's criminal trial this week has turned out to be less shock and awe than shock and ewww.
Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and other powerful men appear likely to get a pass. Less lucky: the 15 terrified women being hauled by prosecutors into court to recount in graphic detail their past work as prostitutes -- and more than 100 other former prostitutes whose names prosecutors are trying to make public.
Wednesday, prosecutors forced a 63-year-old retired PhD -- her name, like those of other witnesses, now a matter of public record -- to testify about inducing orgasms in her client; the government's lawyers had similar questions for a mother of three who worked briefly for the escort service nearly 15 years ago.
Yesterday, it was the turn of a young naval officer to take the stand; the case will almost certainly end her career. The prosecutor, Daniel Butler, had the woman spell her name slowly and clearly, then had her talk about when she was "aggressive" with a client, when she was "more submissive," when she had a difficult client ("he tried to remove the condom") and how often she got "intimate."
"What do you mean by 'intimate'? "
The soon-to-be-former naval officer looked at him in disbelief. "Touching, caressing," she explained.
"What happened" after that? he demanded.
"What type of sex?"
"Sometimes it was oral sex; usually it was normal."
"Normal?" Butler persisted.
"I'm not sure what you're getting at," the stricken witness pleaded.
"What's normal sex?" Butler again demanded.
Judge James Robertson intervened. "He wants to know if you mean intercourse."
Butler pressed on with more humiliating questions until the judge cut him off. "That's enough," Robertson said. Minutes later, the dazed woman was helped out of the room.
From the audience, it appears that prosecutors have presented a solid case that the alleged Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, did indeed run a prostitution ring. A better question, however, is why they bothered. Prosecutors say the prostitution ring generated all of $2 million over 13 years -- small potatoes for a federal racketeering and money-laundering case that could ruin the lives of 132 women.
It's a question that evidently has occurred to the judge. Yesterday, prosecutors unpacked eight binders full of money-order receipts that reveal the identity of most, if not all, of the Madam's escorts. "You want to make public the names of all the employees?" Robertson asked prosecutor Catherine Connelly. "Is there no limit to the collateral damage?"
Evidently not. Connelly said the names had to be released. "Unfortunately."
It's particularly unfortunate when considering what the former escorts earned for this public disgrace: $130 for their 90-minute "calls." Add in travel time, and these sex workers toiled for perhaps $40 an hour.
Yet prosecutors act as if they've caught a major organized crime figure. An IRS agent yesterday showed the jury photos of her home -- a mop and cornflakes box in evidence -- and recited Palfrey's sewer bill, electricity payment, car maintenance and check to Office Depot. One juror's eyes closed, and her head dropped. Others yawned. "I'm not sure why the jury needs to see any of this," the judge pointed out. "Waste of time."
The same might be said of the rest of the case.
Wednesday, Connelly was grilling the 63-year-old former escort. "Did you specifically discuss what happened when you went in the shower?" the prosecutor wanted to know.
The witness explained, "I was having sex."
"What would happen if you were menstruating?" Connelly asked.
The prosecutors also asked the women how many calls they went on and how many resulted in sex. Kristen testified that she had sex on 80 percent of her calls. For Mary, it was 75 to 80 percent. "I'm referring to both intercourse and oral sex," a prosecutor clarified. "Does that change your number?"
Understandably, the women were in a wretched state as they took the stand. A young former escort on Wednesday broke down in tears; the court clerk handed her a box of tissues. The defense lawyer, Preston Burton, noticed how miserable another witness looked. "You're not particularly happy to be here," he observed kindly.
"Who would be?" she answered.
Yesterday, the naval officer struggled to compose herself as she entered the room. The prosecutor suggested a glass of water. "Move a little closer to that microphone, please," coaxed the judge. "Take two deep breaths and relax. Everything's going to be okay."
Soothing words, but not exactly true. The Navy has put the Madam's former employee on leave.
Staff writer Paul Duggan contributed to this column.