Did Senator Vitter Get Hustled?

  • Share
  • Read Later
(l. to r.) Brendan Smialowski / Getty; Mark Wilson / Getty

Louisiana Senator David Vitter (left); Deborah Jeane Palfrey (right)

When Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana confessed to "a very serious sin" on Monday night, Debra Jean Palfrey was not about to forgive him. Sin is one thing; but Palfrey believes Vitter — a proponent of the "sanctity of marriage" — should fess up if that sin was a crime as well. After all, she notes, prostitution is a legal offense for both purveyor and consumer. And as the so-called "D.C. Madam" whose escort service Vitter says he used, Palfrey says the agency she ran was merely one-half of the alleged equation. "Why am I the only person being prosecuted?" she told TIME over the phone. "Sen. Vitter should be prosecuted [if he broke the law]" Palfrey has been battling prostitution-related charges in federal court in Washington, and became a celebrity of sorts in May when ABC's 20/20 ran a story on her service "Pamela Martin & Associates." So far, one State Department official has resigned in connection with the scandal.

In his prepared statement Monday night, Vitter did not address whether he broke the law, how many times he used the escort service, when he stopped using it or whether he recommended the service to others. His office did not respond to requests for comment on those issues. But Palfrey argues that those potentially prurient details of Vitter's activity are key to her case. "If Sen. Vitter participated in any illegal behavior, illegal sex, illegal prostitution, intercourse or oral sex of any kind, you would have to wonder why he would not be prosecuted," she said. Palfrey's legal defense is that no prostitution took place because the escorts who worked for her business were issued strict written instructions not to engage in illegal sexual activity. Indeed, Randall Tobias, the senior State Dept. official who admitted using the service and then resigned, has claimed that he only received "massage." Palfrey's lawyer says Vitter will be called as a witness to testify under oath in her court case.

Vitter's admission that he used the escort service is tied to a call from a telephone number listed in public records in his name in Washington on February 27, 2001. Until late last week, a federal judge had prohibited Palfrey from publicly releasing her phone bills, but the ban was lifted and the entire archive — which Palfrey has said would weigh in at roughly 46 pounds in paper form — has been placed on her website.

TIME called Vitter's office on Monday afternoon with a copy of the phone records, at which point, Vitter's press secretary told TIME it would receive a statement. Instead, Vitter's office rushed a press release to the Associated Press identifying him as a one-time client of the escort service. The AP has said that Vitter's statement on his "very serious sin" was made to its New Orleans office at the senator's own initiative, not in response to a query from the AP.

Members of a team assembled by pornographer and self-described free speech advocate Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, are understood to have identified Vitter's name through their own analysis of Palfrey's phone records. Flynt has a long record of exposing what he regards as "hypocrisy" on the part of politicians who tout family or religious values, while falling short in their own lives. Flynt recently placed a full page adverstisement in the Washington Post, asking, "Have you had a sexual encounter with a current member of the United States Congress or a high-ranking government official?" It went on to offer $1 million for documented evidence, and listed a toll-free number and an email address. On Tuesday afternoon, Flynt's Hustler magazine issued a press release claiming responsibility for Vitter's decision to confess.

Could Palfrey and Flynt be working together? One of Flynt's lead investigators, crime reporter Dan E. Moldea, was recently reported by the Washington Post to be having lunch with Palfrey. TIME has confirmed that he is helping her write a book currently being shopped to New York publishers which details her exploits as the "DC Madam". But both she and Flynt have said they have never met and are not coordinating their efforts.

Vitter is currently the Southern campaign director for presidential candidate Rudolph Guiliani. At the time of the phone call to Palfrey's escort service, Vitter was still a member of the House of Representatives. In 2006, Vitter emerged as a strong supporter of Marriage Protection Ammendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that emerged in reaction to the push for the right of gays to marry. It defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. On Monday, Vitter indicated that his marriage had survived his sin, which lay in the past. Vitter said, "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way." He did not name the escort with whom he sinned.

Palfrey said she is not currently aware of the name of the escort who might be linked to Sen. Vitter, which she could find only by consulting additional records. She has said her service employed hundreds of contractors and sub-contractors in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia area, one of numerous services that routinely advertise in local publications.