Jurors in Racketeering Case Reject the ‘Fantasy’
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2022; B01
A federal jury convicted Deborah Jeane Palfrey yesterday of running a Washington-area call-girl ring in the guise of “a high-end erotic fantasy service,” rejecting her argument that she was unaware for 13 years that female hookups she employed were performing sex acts with clients for money.
Palfrey, dubbed the “D.C. Madam” after a grand jury in Washington indicted her on prostitution-related racketeering charges 13 months ago, has said she hired socially polished, college-educated women to indulge her customers’ fantasies through “quasi-sexual” game-playing only.
But the seven women and five men of the jury in U.S. District Court sided with prosecutors, who said Palfrey was not in the business of selling simulated hanky-panky — that she knew her clients were paying $250 an hour for full-fledged sexual encounters. The panel deliberated for less than eight hours Monday afternoon and yesterday morning.
“Obviously we’re disappointed in the verdict, but we respect the jury’s decision,” said defense attorney Preston Burton. He said he has instructed his normally talkative client — who will remain free until her July 24 sentencing — not to comment on the trial.
A year after Palfrey, 52, stirred a gossipy fuss in Washington by announcing that she would make public some of her records, exposing ex-clients “from the more refined walks of life here in the nation’s capital,” Judge James Robertson turned to her from the bench yesterday and said, “Would the defendant please rise, and would the clerk please read the verdicts?”
In a gray suit and black boots, her lips and nails stoplight-red as always and her dark hair swirled into a familiar bouffant, Palfrey stood, hands clasped at her waist, maintaining the poise she showed throughout her week-long trial. Then the clerk spoke, and she swayed a bit, lowering her chin ever so slightly and emitting a barely audible groan.
“Guilty,” the clerk said four times — guilty of racketeering, money laundering and two counts of using the mail for illegal purposes. The U.S. attorney’s office said that under sentencing guidelines, Palfrey probably faces a prison term of four to six years.
Outside the courtroom, an Internal Revenue Service agent who took part in the investigation pumped a fist in triumph. But prosecutors said they would not comment on the trial until after the sentencing.
Palfrey ran her business, Pamela Martin & Associates, by telephone from her California home, and authorities said she grossed about $2 million from 1993 to 2022, splitting the money about evenly with her hookups. They said she employed at least 132 women over the years, dispatching them nightly to clients in homes and hotel rooms in the Washington area.
At issue in the trial was what the women did when they arrived. Thirteen former call girls, appearing in court under prosecution subpoena, testified in often graphic detail about their sexual encounters with the men. Although most said Palfrey discussed prostitution with them only in vague terms, they said they had no doubts that their employment depended on their willingness to have sex for money.
The women said they and Palfrey often spoke in euphemisms. After talking on the phone with Palfrey about becoming a call girl, for example, one future hookup followed up with a letter: “This is in response to your acknowledgment of an opening in the Field Support Team of Pamela Martin & Associates.”
“There was no fantasy,” the woman testified, saying her clients lacked the imagination for game-playing. She said Palfrey told her “that most of these men were pretty vanilla. Her word, ‘vanilla.’ ”
Burton called no witnesses and relied on the argument that the prosecution had not met its burden of proof. Palfrey did not testify.
After Palfrey turned over thousands of her former clients’ phone numbers to ABC News last year and later posted them on the Web, a deputy secretary of state, Randall L. Tobias, resigned, acknowledging that he had used Palfrey’s service for massages. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), also linked to Palfrey through phone records, apologized to constituents for a “very serious sin,” without saying what sin he had committed.
ABC said it found numbers linked to corporate CEOs, military officers, lobbyists and officials of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and NASA. In a court filing, Palfrey named Harlan K. Ullman, a think tank military strategist, as “a regular customer.”
Although lawyers in the trial said in court that Vitter, Tobias and Ullman were on their witness lists, no prominent alleged ex-clients were called to testify.
The embarrassment of having to publicly recount an unsavory past fell mainly to the 13 women, each of whom testified that she worked for Palfrey for no more than a year or so (in some cases just a few months) and quit the call-girl business long ago.
Judge Robertson, sympathizing with the women, said yesterday that documents in the trial that contain the names of the other 119 former hookups would be sealed.
This was not the convicted madam’s first dust-up with the law. Jurors were not told that she was convicted of running a prostitution ring in California 17 years ago and spent 18 months in jail.
Considering Palfrey’s history, prosecutor Catherine Connelly asked Robertson to order her locked up until sentencing. But the judge declined, saying Palfrey is an “intelligent woman” who knows she would be punished if she tried to “flee the country.”
She did flee the courthouse, though, avoiding a half-dozen television cameras waiting outside. Burton said later that his client “is, I think, holding up fine.
“She’s with her mother.”