If there's one woman who might take some small comfort in the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal, it's Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a.k.a. the "D.C. Madam." Her trial on federal charges of prostitution-related racketeering and money laundering is set to begin in April. Palfrey's "Pamela Martin & Associates" escort service boasted some 10,000 clients, including powerful D.C. figures. Sen. David Vitter, a family-values Republican from Louisiana, admitted he was on Palfrey's customer list and apologized. Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias, an anti-prostitution crusader, resigned last year after admitting he was also a Palfrey client. He insisted that he received only massages, not sex.
All along, Palfrey has claimed she was running a perfectly legal "adult fantasy" service that stopped short of sex; the Feds say it was an old-fashioned call-girl ring. If she's found guilty, she could face 55 years in prison. But now, she hopes, Spitzer's fall may give her claims an unexpected credibility boost. Part of Palfrey's defense has been that call girls charge much more than no-sex escorts. Exhibit A: Spitzer, who allegedly paid $4,300 for a session with "Kristen," the Emperor's Club prostitute who met him at Washington's Mayflower Hotel. "We charged between $200 and $300," Palfrey tells NEWSWEEK. Even if the Emperor's Club rates were inflated New York area prices, Palfrey says, her business "wasn't even in the prostitution price range. This whole scandal helps my case considerably."
She can hope so, anyway. Prosecutors are trying to make their case on a provision called the Travel Act, which prohibits use of the mail and interstate travel to promote gambling, unlawful distribution of narcotics and prostitution. Like Kristen, who went by Amtrak from New York to Washington to meet Spitzer, Palfrey's D.C.-area employees allegedly crossed state lines to see clients in the District, Virginia and Maryland. Since Palfrey was based in California, prosecutors say, every phone call and payment from clients violated the law.
Meanwhile, Palfrey is already at work on, of course, a memoir. In the 100 pages she's written so far (and which she shared with NEWSWEEK), she portrays herself as a helpless victim of hypocritical "federales," "Bible thumpers" and heartless prosecutors out to conduct a "witch burning." She writes of growing up in a Pennsylvania steel town and dreaming of a better life. "Had I not left … my life could have existed of stamping price stickers on cans of green beans at the local A&P supermarket." After failing to find "Mr. Right" or a solid career, she went to San Diego, where she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for running a prostitution ring. On her release, she moved north to Vallejo, Calif., and in 1993 opened her "little cottage industry," Pamela Martin & Associates. For 13 years, she ran her "snooze fest" of an escort service from a desk next to her washer and dryer, daily from 2 to 9, "except for holidays and snow days."
In Palfrey's telling, she was a model citizen. "I paid my taxes on time every April 15th," she writes, and says she filed tax forms for her employees with the IRS. "Empowerment was the goal," writes Palfrey. She says many of the 143 escorts who worked for her throughout the years were college graduates, and some held doctorate degrees. She urged them to save and invest. When the Feds came calling in 2006, she realized that "the government in the course of a 24 or so hour period could wipe out my entire life's work and savings. And I had to take it." The former governor of New York couldn't have put it better himself.