The "D.C. Madam" Outrage
On Friday, April 11, the new Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington was opened to the public. Its fašade is notable for a 74-foot tall 50-ton marble slab with the 45 words of the First Amendment engraved in it. The lead dedication speaker was Chief Justice John G. Roberts. In anticipation of his speech, The Washington Post observed on Friday that Justice Roberts had spoken last year at a similar dedication at Syracuse University's school of communications. The building being dedicated on that occasion also had the First Amendment prominently displayed, which prompted this observation by the esteemed jurist:
Now, the new building that we dedicated properly celebrates the words of the First Amendment. They literally surround and envelop those who will study and work in the building. But to those people I would offer this caution: Do not think for a moment that those words alone will protect you.
Justice Roberts should know a thing or two about empty declarations carved in stone. After all, above the columns in his own Supreme Court Building, one can see the fine, empty promise, "EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW."
Just a few short blocks away from both the Newseum and the Supreme Court Building a great demonstration of absurdly unequal justice is now on display. That's where Deborah Jean Palfrey is being prosecuted in federal district court for running what they say was a prostitution ring disguised as an "escort service."
Well what do you know? You mean to tell me that among all those openly-advertised escort services there are actually some that might do more than provide you with a well-dressed and attractive woman to be seen with at the theater or the ballet? "Pamela Martin and Associates," which is that name Ms. Palfrey gave to her escort business, certainly sounds respectable enough to me, a good deal more respectable than some of her competitors, like "Escorts Exxxtreme," "Experience Ecstassy," "A One Night Stand," "Bad Girls," "Passionate Playmates," and "Klimaxxx," to name just a few very representative samples. And this list didn't come from a mimeographed sheet that I picked up on a mean street in Northeast Washington, either. There are ten pages of such businesses advertised quite openly in the Washington, DC, Yellow Book.
You don't believe me? Here they are on pp. 346, 347, 348, 349, 350, 351, 352, 353, 354, and 355. And the ones with the advertisements hardly exhaust the list. One can count 16 escort businesses that begin with the letter "E" alone in the accompanying listings. You might find some for yourself by going to switchboard.com and looking for escort services in Washington, DC. Taken altogether, this seldom-discussed business between consenting adults is clearly a major contributor to the economy of our nation's capital. Not only was Pamela Martin and Associates a particularly discreet business among very many, but it was also apparently one of the smaller ones. Dana Milbank reported in Friday's Post that in 13 years of operation, Pamela Martin generated all of $2 million in income, "small potatoes for a federal racketeering and money-laundering case that could ruin the lives of 132 women," observes Milbank, in a rare moment of empathy and good sense for a Post writer. (Interestingly, Milbank's article was right next to the Newseum piece at the top of page A3.)
Why Are They Doing This?
What you will not get from The Post or anyone else in the mainstream press is why this particular federal prosecution is taking place. Since it is a federal case, that means that the investigators and arresting officers were likely members of the FBI. But the press has reported nothing about the investigators. And it's a really good thing for these proud law enforcement officials that they haven't. What kind of geniuses did these brave FBI agents or maybe Treasury policemen have to be to figure out that a certain amount of hanky-panky goes with your average escort service?
When the actions of the government make no sense at all, much like our invasion and occupation of Iraq, one has to wonder what the real reasons are, as opposed to what they say they are.
A rationale for the prosecution that can be ruled out is that this is just a shot across the bow of the thriving prostitution industry in Washington, a shot that is designed to scare them all straight. If that were the case, there wouldn't be such complete silence about the very existence of all those other, much more blatant, and likely larger "escort services." And they're not about to shut down an industry that's so important to the local economy, not to mention what it does for the powerful, lucky few.
Was Deborah Jean's mistake that she tried to run her business from a continent away in California, and therefore couldn't be on the spot to grease the right palms when they needed greasing? But if that is the case, why did they let her do it for 13 years?
Maybe it was like one of those big drug busts south of the border (or north of the border, for that matter). Perhaps more powerful competitors are using their influence with their friends and protectors in government to get rid of a nettlesome rival. But it doesn't sound like her operation was big enough to have been particularly bothersome to the industry kingpins (or queenpins, as it were). I have not been a close observer of such things, but I would guess that Pamela Martin and Associates was never flush enough to spring for one of the larger advertisements in the Yellow Book.
So where does that leave us? A cynical friend speculates that Deborah Jean must have run afoul of some particularly powerful and vicious federal government official in the normal course of her business. This official/customer, given his bent toward the sadistic, wanted one of Deborah Jean's girls to do something that she was flatly unwilling to do, perhaps worse than what Governor Eliot Spitzer is alleged to have asked of and received from his comely and costly lady of the night. Full of his importance, the customer appealed to the madam, and Deborah Jean put her foot squarely down on the side of the service provider. What we are witnessing, then, is nothing more than a demonstration of that powerful person's fit of pique over the madam's effrontery.
Has it really come to this? I know it seems that some of our current high officials take an almost perverse pleasure in visiting a variety of barbarities upon various people who have fallen into their clutches, but are we really witnessing the transformation of America into something resembling the worst of the ancient despotisms or modern third world dictatorships? Surely we have not become, in effect, Caligula's Rome or Idi Amin's Uganda, have we?
Still, this cruel and capricious prosecution (Shall we say, persecution?) of the easiest and most convenient target imaginable resembles nothing so much as the shooting of tame, farm-raised quail. A certain powerful official who is also at the heart of the other indelicate practices to which we have referred is known to take pleasure in the latter. Could someone like that be behind the former as well?
Jury to the Rescue?
Those who have followed the coverage up to now are no doubt convinced that Ms. Palfrey and her company have broken the law. But you and I also break the law when we go with the flow of traffic on the interstate, ten miles per hour or so over the speed limit, while being passed on occasion by faster drivers. We would be duly outraged to be picked out and ticketed. Similarly, we should all be outraged at this unfair prosecution.
Doubtless, though, the judge will instruct the jury that they have one simple obligation, which is to determine whether or not the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of violating the law as it is written. In so doing, he will be asking them to relinquish one of their great powers as free citizens, the right to follow their consciences. Consider the following statement from the Fully Informed Jury Association:
Juries protect society from dangerous individuals and also protect individuals from dangerous government. Jurors have a duty and responsibility to render a just verdict. They must take into account the facts of the case, mitigating circumstances, the merits of the law, and the fairness of its application in each case. (emphasis added)
Few governments have shown themselves to be more dangerous than the one now residing in our nation's capital. Were the DC madam's jury to rise up in resistance and find Deborah Jean Palfrey innocent, it would be a real demonstration of how free citizens can use their freedom to keep a threatening government in check. It could also be a good example for our craven press. They make a big fuss about First Amendment freedom, but when it comes to exposing and standing up to governmental abuse of power, they seem to have forgotten how to use it.
David Martin, April 13, 2008
Continued on May 14, 2008: "The Improbability of the D.C. Madam's Suicide"