So, now what? The woman nicknamed the “D.C. Madam,” who faces racketeering charges for running what federal authorities believe was an illegal prostitution ring, has given the phone records of her escort business to several news agencies. Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who maintains that she ran a legal adult fantasy sex service, had hoped that concern over the names of her clients appearing in the press would help shore up her case; Montgomery Blair Sibley, a lawyer working with her on civil suits, has said she hoped to have clients called as defense witnesses. But the press has, by and large, not gone that route—at least not yet. So where does that leave Palfrey, 51, who faces a fresh court hearing May 21? The diminutive and dark-haired Palfrey, dressed all in black save for a gold heart-shaped pendant, chandelier earrings and pink nail polish, met with NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant last week in New York to discuss her next legal steps, ABC News' decision not to go public with her clients' names, the hiring pool for her escorts—and why she says she's found support among feminists.
NEWSWEEK: So, what do you think of that much-hyped ABC 20/20 spot?
Jeane Palfrey: I think they did a wonderful piece in many respects. My approval rating, which seems to have been pretty awful before the 20/20 piece, was sub par, and I think I got above par, got above the water line.
How would you know what your “approval rating” is?
Feedback might be a better way to describe it. ... Opinions that people had of me prior to the 20/20 piece came from jagged and disjointed sources. There were no real interviews by me, so certain media and press went a little wild with speculation. And we all know how someone such as myself can be portrayed in a very bad light from the outset. Then, when I would not give an opinion, because I had given exclusivity to 20/20, that just magnified matters more. ... But I think then they saw me and they saw the home that I lived in, that I was a normal person—not some bizarre caricature or freak by any means. I was rather complimented when somebody said to me yesterday, “You're rather sane.” I think I just got above the water line. So they did a good job in that respect and they also got the story of hypocrisy out and they told the story with a beginning, middle and end. ... However, like just about everyone else who watched the piece anticipating something, there was a lot of buildup and there was a big letdown. It was very deflating. In fact, after the first segment I was waiting for the second segment to start really talking about the issues I had discussed with them but that was it—they went on to the next piece they were airing for the evening.
People were waiting for see whether ABC named more clients. And one of the reasons we've heard you want these names out there is to shore up your defense.
How do you feel about the fact that they didn't bite?
It's questionable, yeah. It's a big question on the table. There are two reasons I'm doing this. First of all, I'm not naming names. I did not name Mr. Tobias [Randall Tobias, a deputy secretary of state, resigned after ABC asked him about Palfrey's escort service; Tobias said he had used the service for legal massages, not sex]. And I had no intention of naming any names. It will be up to the press and media to disclose names as they see fit. There are two reasons why I am giving lists and rosters and phone records to various media organizations. One is because I really do need to call defense witnesses for my defense here. It's just a basic fact of defense strategy. I need to bring forward defense witness to exonerate me, and where are they located? They're located in the phone record. So that's sort of a no-brainer.
[Montgomery Blair Sibley, a lawyer working with Palfrey on civil suits, who was present for the interview, added: “In fact, they are only in the phone record because there is no black book for her to call people up.”]
Palfrey: I have nothing, I have nothing. So that's reason No. 1. Reason No. 2 is [Sibley] and I have gone through the many weeks and months here, and we have come to realize between ourselves after many hours of conversations and e-mails and discussions with others that we are almost holding responsibility, in many ways, to not have the wholesale slaughter of 10,000 names, but to disclose perhaps, or let others disclose through investigation, 10, 20, 50, 100 names of people who hold the public trust and therefore violated [it] in some manner or shape or form here. We couldn't have asked for a better example than Mr. Tobias, who is [on the] one hand preaching abstinence and trying to rid the world of this scourge called prostitution yet is practicing in real life the exact opposite of what he preaches.
By "practicing the opposite" do you mean he was taking part in prostitution?
Absolutely not. My business, Pamela Martin & Associates, was a sexual business, albeit a legal one. It's the government which says my firm was engaged in illegal activity. My point when making this statement is Mr. Tobias's hypocrisy in all of this. I do not believe for a minute he engaged in a massage only. For one thing, I, we, never offered massage services. To be a masseuse you have to be trained and certified like a professional manicurist or stylist; perhaps even more so. Mr. Tobias most likey had a sexual fantasy experience, in my opinion. It seems to me—whether the encounter was a legal one or not and according to him, it definitely sounded legal—Mr. Tobias was a man who preached sexual morals to the rest of us, all the while behaving in the opposite fashion. Perhaps the massage comment was an attempt on his part to keep from describing his fantasy of choice.
Did you have conversations with him directly?
Of course I did but I can't really place him. You have to understand I had as many as 200,000 phone calls in a 13-year period. We based that on about 40-50 incoming and outgoing phone calls a night, seven nights a week, 345 nights a year.
We would take about 20 nights a year off for holidays and snow days, that kind of thing.
Snow days. You can't get to the hotel, can't get out of the house to get to the hotel. You know Washington D.C.—one inch of snow and the city is paralyzed.
Were you the primary person handling the phones?
I was the only person. I did have one or two or three girls at a time who would pick up the phone lines and answer for me if I was traveling and I just couldn't make the phones by 2 in California, which is 5 here. And if my plane didn't land until 3 in California I'd have someone work the phones until I could back around 7 or so and switch the phone back to me. There were lots of times like that, especially towards the end.
What were the peak hours people would call? Where was your office, if you had one?
Command central is my laundry room. Right beside the washer and dryer. That's where the built-in desk and my bookshelves are. I would cover the phones every night from 5-11, which would be 2-8 in California.
Were certain days of the week more or less popular?
I only wish I knew the answer to that question, or I would have taken off during those times. You never knew. It was kind of like the restaurant business, it could be busy or it could be slow. You had a general feeling that maybe people would call in the beginning of the night, but not necessarily.
Sounds like you could get burnt out in that line of work.
It was like Groundhog Day every day. And that's one of the reasons I decided to get out. It was time to change and move on, switch out, switch over, switch somewhere. Just go on, just like anything else in life.
In 1991 you served 18 months for operating an illegal prostitution business. But in 1993, you set up Pamela Martin and Associates. Some people might decide after serving time that they don't want to go anywhere near the same field.
Unless you have a felony conviction and nobody will hire you. And you have no choice. Not like my current predicament—or opportunity, you might call it. Now I have people running after me saying, “We can make you lots of money.” Nothing like that happened last time, I can assure you.
You signed with a literary agent right before we started talking. So there's a promise of a book deal and maybe now a movie deal?
Oh, I'm sure, but I'm not racing into it. This is not about money. It's coming at me but I'm turning it down more than I'm accepting it. I've accepted two business arrangements; this [the deal with the literary agent] was the second one and you were eyewitness to it. I think I do need to have somebody professionally behind me, whether it's a book or a movie or a documentary. They are affiliated with a woman who is a protégé of Gloria Steinem who wants to go after this as an independent documentary.
So the person who may want to do a documentary about you is a feminist?
Yes, very much so. And that's one of the reasons why I chose to go with her. So I'm not chasing after money. ... I'll give you a good example of what I turned down this morning. I have somebody I licensed my baby pictures to, you know. You know how that all works. And he says he met someone in New York at one of the dailies, whatever those rags are, and they wanted me to just hold the phone records and pose for them and they would pay us some big money. But I'm really not interested, No. 1. Number two, those phone records are under lock and key and undisclosed location, probably Fort Knox, aren't they at this point? I don't know where they are. I'm making a joke of course. So I said, even if I did pose it would have to be with props since I don't have the phone records. And even props just seem distasteful. I don't want to do that. I don't want to do things that are distasteful. But I do need some money. I need to pay Mr. Sibley. I've been living off a line of credit for months now; I need to pay that off. I need to have money to be able to eat. It's not that I'm going to go out Bloomingdale's and shop until I drop; I just basically need some funds for survival. ... Some have said: “You know what, the Feds claim she made $2 million over 13 years, that really boils down to about $150,000 a year and by the time you deduct expenses for Yellow Pages advertising, she really wasn't making more than $100,000 a year.” Somebody who makes $100,000 a year in this society is not a greedy person. I mean that's almost a modest income these days.
Tell me more about the women you hired. I looked in City Paper recently under “Adult Employment” and several asked for college grads and young professionals.
I think I first started that 13 years ago. I started right out the gate with “this is the standard”: two to four or more years of college, 23 and up, although I had no hiring limit; I hired women into their 50s and everybody had to have either work or go to school in the daytime. I was not interested in jaded, hard-core girls of any caliber. I wanted women who were strong and independent, who wanted to go on with their lives but they couldn't get into grad school—or they could get into grad school but didn't have the money. Or they wanted to get out of renting an apartment but they didn't have the down payment to put on a starter condominium, you get the picture. I wanted to empower women. It's all about empowerment, that's all it is.
Hmmm. Some might say it's not exactly about empowerment. They're subservient to what a man in that private room wants.
That's the image and that's the way to keep women down. That's why the feminists so love me. They do, they do. They're coming at me from left and right. The feminists, they think what I'm doing is great or they think that prostitution should be decriminalized or that sex industry should not have the taboo. It's not a way of putting women down, it's almost empowerment.
How, exactly, is it empowerment?
I'll give you a good example. Many girls, over the years, would come back to me, especially the ones who had never done this sort of thing before. And they would say, “Oh my God, he had roses waiting for me when I arrived. Can you believe that? I am 29 years of age and I have never had my boyfriend or a man give me roses before in my life.” The tables were turned; they were the ones in power.
Let's go beyond the roses. In what way were they the ones in power?
They called the shots. It was their way or the highway. The girls were told, “If you don't like him, if there is something about the situation or him that you're unhappy with, you have the right to get up walk out.” They could say: “You will behave accordingly, you will act accordingly.”
“You will behave accordingly” means what, exactly?
You will be a gentleman. You will follow what she says. The guidelines are these and that's it. And that's the way I conducted the phone conversations. If they behaved in a manner on the phone that was inappropriate, that was it. I wanted nothing to do with them. Which is something most women should be doing anyway. Setting standards. Then men would not behave the way they do.
What exactly are the guidelines?
If there were drugs, that was a problem on rare occasions. A girl might walk in and there was cocaine on the table. Another time there were two men in the room. Or the house is filthy. So the girls walk out. If the man became verbally abusive, she could walk out.
Are you a feminist?
In what way?
I'm equal to anyone else and that's what feminism is all about. Equality. I'm as equal and worthy of respect as anyone else on this earth, man or woman.
Let's talk about the women a bit more. You said two years at least of college experience. Does that mean they were college grads or college dropouts?
It's really amazing; in fact, I was so inspired I went back and got my MBA. The girls that came to me were so educated—I mean, there was a period over a few months where every fifth day I heard, “I need to go back to school and get my Ph.D.,” and they needed the money. They were exploring this option to finance their education. Most of them already did have a college degree or close to it.
These were about 132 women, right? And why did you want them also to have a full-time job?
Yes. I wanted them to be well-rounded. I wanted them to do this only as a stepping-stone to something else. It really was a sense of empowerment in that regards, because they could get out of this cesspool of debt, to pay off their 5 or 10k in credit-card debt, get that monkey off their back and move on to higher pastures. Or save the 5 or 10k that they need for the starter condominium, or take it to pay off their tuition, you get the picture. It's all about empowerment and I encouraged that an awful lot.
How qualified were the women?
I had several college professors. One of them breached her contract.
What about these women in their 50s you hired? I mean, that comes as a bit of surprise.
That's because you're young.
Anyhow, someone in their 20s or 30s might want to go get their Ph.D.; most women in their 50s are not, so why are they doing it?
They have the Ph.D. and they're not making any money. It's a twisted, sad circle, isn't it?
How much would the women make?
A 90-minute session started out at $195. But, due to inflationary reasons, it elevated throughout the years to be close to $275. It was pretty much a 50-50 split.
What was your screening process? Did you meet the women in person? Otherwise how else would you know what they really looked like? Your lawyer told me before that it was important to have someone who was weight-height proportionate.
Well, initially they would call. Talk is cheap, so I'd let them talk. And I'd say to them at the end of the conversation, “Why don't you go to the Web site, read a little bit about us, think about it overnight. If you feel good about all of this in the morning give me a call, I'm here, God knows, every night starting at 5 to talk some more.” That eliminated about 80-90 percent of them right there. A lot of people would never call back. Those who did, I'd say, “Great, this is what we need to do. I need for you to send me ... a photocopy of their driver's license or passport.” A résumé or short e-mail describing themselves: “Hi, you know, I swim in the summer, I ski in the fall, I'm in great shape, I love to cook, I have a four-year degree in economics and I'm a struggling whatever and I need the money to go graduate school.” And then they would send me a little photo of themselves. After that, we'd talk some more and I'd tell them: “I need you to go on an interview because I'm 3,000 miles away and I want to know if you're sincere. It's going to be a real appointment—a dress rehearsal—so you understand how it's all done. Once it's all over and done with—if it's what you want and what I want and everyone's happy—then you'll have the job” ... Sending your e-mail is cheap, but when you actually get in the car and drive there and go through it, you're sincere. Because my time and energy is valuable, I didn't have time to waste it on people. But also I wanted to have somebody who could eyeball them. People could tell me they're 5 foot 5 and shapely and 135 pounds and then wind up 5 foot 5 and not so shapely and 165 pounds. This is also not something that everyone could do. ... It flushed a lot of people out. I hired far and few women; I was very selective and there very few women who ... [had] the courage to do it. And sometimes, when I found out about them, if they lied about themselves—there was a lot of résumé padding—then I'd decide I didn't want anything to do with them. And that's pretty much the way it worked. It was actually no different than most jobs where you have to go through a series of steps to get the appointment.
Wouldn't they need to sleep with this screener of yours?
That's what the government is alleging, but it's not true. He would have adult fantasy sex with the woman. Remember, what is legal in Maryland isn't always legal in D.C., but generally speaking, if you didn't cross the line you were probably OK.
What was required of the women during the 90-minute sessions?
Anything but prostitution, illegal sex, which is intercourse of any kind, or oral sex.
[Sibley: generally speaking ...]
Palfrey: Generally speaking. You see, this is why we have to have the lawyer here so we can throw that two words in “generally speaking.” But otherwise, everything and anything went. You can elaborate if you wish, Blair.
Sibley: Well, the point I'd rather make is that this was an introduction and the women did not have an exclusive agreement. It's like—they'd be a little annoyed with you at NEWSWEEK if you went to sell this story to Time. These women got the introduction, and then if they wanted to get the gentleman's phone number and make a date between the two of them for tomorrow night, they could do that. They were actually contractually advised that they had every right to do that. That's why it was really much more like match.com.
So how competitive is D.C. as a market for escort services? Why did you choose D.C., and how tough was it for you to hold on to your share of the market?
Palfrey: Well I'm a real snob in that regard. I never thought that anybody was on our level, ever. I never associated with anyone. I never had anything to do with anyone. I never wanted to have anything to do with anyone. I never even opened the yellow pages other than to make sure my ad was in there. And why did I choose D.C.? Well, I guess it must have been fate. ... I just thought it was a very sophisticated place to go, and cosmopolitan. And, you know, it was better than any number of places I could have chosen. It would have been D.C. or New York. And I just chose D.C. New York I thought was a little rough. I thought D.C. was a little tamer.
Have you ever worked as an escort yourself?
No. I knew people in San Diego years and years ago. The irony of all this is that I was in no different position than a lot of these girls. I simply needed money. I chose, because I had business talents and organizational skills, to try and put together a ragtag group of people. It wasn't so ragtag though, it was beginning to develop but because I didn't have as much business acumen or street knowledge at that point it kind of collapsed around me. And there you go. It was a grand total of three months.
You're talking about 1991, right, when you served time for prostitution?
Correct. It kind of collapsed down on me.
Is there something I haven't asked that you'd like to talk about?
The emphasis should not be on me so much. I'm no different than all these girls. I needed to just generate a little bit of extra income. There are a lot of misogynistic forces involved in this who want to keep that whole whore-Madonna concept of women in place—which prohibits women from freely being able to go out and moonlight and make, oh my God, an extra three or five hundred dollars a week to survive. Nobody's harmed here. Nobody's ever been harmed here. The worst complaint a client has ever had was “She was late” or “She was not exactly how you described her.” The biggest breach is sending the wrong girl.
Any violence toward the women?
No, no, no. When I heard that kind of voice, I'd just turn them away.
What is “that kind of voice”?
Somebody who is just a jerk. Somebody who would say, “I want somebody with big blankety-blanks.” I'd say, “I'm sorry, are you referring to a woman's breasts? We have people who are large-breasted, or perhaps busty. But we don't have women with 'those.'' The tone of my voice would become so elitist; I would talk to them like I was the Queen of England looking down upon a peasant. Well, maybe not her because she's pretty OK, but some royalty looking down on nothing. And I would diminish him as much as he just tried to diminish the girl. I would turn the tables. And needless to say I would just tell him: “We have no one who is rather busty this evening, thank you.” I was really good at that. I was offended. I was offended and I was vicariously offended for them. That part of my body or her body or any other's woman's body is not called that.
The hypocrisy thing: we've got one side going to John School down there in Washington, D.C.; it's like traffic school—they pay their 250 bucks to be rehabilitated from seeing the devil women of the night and the Janes don't have a Jane school—they have the county lockup. ... The fact is, they are prosecuting Jane No. 1, the big Jane, and I'm the only Jane on the block, in case you've noticed.
The only Jane on the block?
The only Jane on the block, the only madam, the only escort service owner, the only anything. My former federal public defender, who was dismissed last Monday—[he spent 16 years] in the federal public defender's office and he'd never seen a case like mine. It's very disturbing why this all started and why this is a continuing ...
You just described yourself as a madam ...
No, no. I owned a business. I was a business-owner operator. As a matter of fact, people jokingly say, “Jeane, the name of the book that eventually will come out someday must be “Don't call me madam.”
But you just called yourself a madam.
Yeah, I know. But I'm just making a public commentary about the other people who are in my position. When you look at the hypocrisy of this situation, which is very upsetting in my opinion. ... If it wasn't for my 10,000 names I'd be swallowed up by the system now. Make no doubt about it. And I would be just like any other woman in this position, any sex worker or madam or escort service operator or whatever you want to describe someone like me, people who are in this position. I'd be swallowed up the system whole right now. As a matter of fact, I seem to be a lightning rod for a variety of women across the country. People who have been abused by the system, tales of horror. I mean I've got day at the beach—I'm being taken to the Mayflower for lunch, by God, in Washington D.C.. I'm being treated very well by a variety of people because of my circumstances. But these women have horror stories. I have one woman who told me they invoked the Patriot Act on her to get her to cooperate.
May 21 is your next status hearing. What's your next step?
I'm very hopeful. I think that, legally, we're in a solid position, if we can ever get into court and defend ourselves. So right now we've never had our chance, had due access, had our day in court. We don't even know who the witnesses are. But we're very hopeful.