Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Deborah Jeane Palfrey was convicted of racketeering for running a Washington, D.C., prostitution ring. One of her clients was David Vitter, a conservative Republican senator from Louisiana famed for long-time public dedication to traditional family values. His name, and the names of her other clients, was released by Palfrey, and Vitter admitted to having sinned. The scandal embarrassed Vitter but cost Palfrey her life; Palfrey committed suicide in 2008.

Summary of Event

American history is replete with scandals involving politicians and women engaged in marginalized, sexually oriented businesses such as prostitution and escort services. The case of U.S. senator David Vitter in 2007 and 2008 was in many ways typical. He was a rising figure in the Republican Party who made a name for himself in his home state of Louisiana and in Washington, D.C., stumping for conservative causes. He found his career endangered by an alleged connection to an upscale prostitution ring while party to a highly publicized court case. What distinguished this case from many others of the same ilk was the apparent ease with which Vitter managed to weather the scandal and the aspects of his character, history, and conduct that allowed him to survive politically. [kw]Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book, Senator David (July 9, 2007) Louisiana Congress, U.S.;David Vitter[Vitter] Vitter, David Palfrey, Deborah Jeane Louisiana Congress, U.S.;David Vitter[Vitter] Vitter, David Palfrey, Deborah Jeane [g]United States;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Prostitution;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Sex;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Sex crimes;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Politics;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Law and the courts;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790] [c]Murder and suicide;July 9, 2007: Senator David Vitter’s Name Is Found in D.C. Madam’s Address Book[03790]

Vitter was a young Republican senator from Louisiana who had devoted most of his political career to socially conservative causes such as public prayer in schools, abstinence-based sex education, and opposition to abortion and same-gender marriage. Despite his dedication to these family-values issues, rumors that he patronized prostitutes plagued him from as early as 2002, when the rumors effectively sank his hopes for becoming governor of Louisiana in 2002.

David Vitter and his wife, Wendy Vitter, at a news conference in Metairie, Louisiana, on July 16, 2007. The senator was making his first public appearance since acknowledging that his name and phone number were in the address book of the D.C. Madam.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Deborah Jeane Palfrey was an enigmatic figure who came from a background not unlike that of Vitter. She grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida in a religious, working-class family. (Upon her death in the spring of 2008, a haunting image of her smiling beatifically in her communion dress was used in newspaper and magazine photos accompanying the story.) Like Vitter (and his wife, Wendy), Palfrey initially intended to become a lawyer. However, after obtaining an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and enrolling in law school, she at some point lost focus and drifted into the demimonde of high-class call girls, cultured women elegantly coiffed and garbed and who were paid enormous fees for their sexual services. Later, Palfrey tried to suggest that her entering the sex-for-hire business was in large part an attempt at social reform. She wanted to provide escorts with a healthy and safe work environment free of the violence and substance abuse that traditionally characterized the business.

Palfrey also made huge profits from her endeavors in this field, and her enterprise soon grew to such proportions that it attracted the attention of the law. In 1992, after two years of legal wrangling and trials, she was found guilty of pimping and pandering and imprisoned for one and one-half years. Her experiences behind bars so traumatized her that she vowed never to return to prison, a remark that would soon come back to haunt her. However unpleasant was her jail time, it did not discourage her from reentering the escort business after her release, and she founded her next venture, Pamela Martin & Associates (PMA), in Washington, D.C.

Using small-venue newspapers aimed at specialized readerships (such as campus newspapers), Palfrey recruited women from all walks of life, including college students and women already earning high salaries in respected professions. Soon, PMA had profits of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year—and yet again, Palfrey’s successful sex business grew so large that it attracted the attention of the police and other legal authorities.

Palfrey first revealed her business in an interview that aired on ABC’s 20/20 on May 4, 2007. She released her list of clients, which included Senator Vitter, on July 9. She was arrested in the fall of 2007 for prostitution, using the U.S. mail service for illegal purposes, and other crimes. American news media began to cover the story closely when it was revealed that many of the clients of the call-girl ring included prominent politicians, business executives, lobbyists, military officers, and international officials and that PMA had kept meticulous records of its contacts with clients, including their telephone numbers. (Palfrey estimated that the number of clients listed on the agency’s records topped ten thousand.) Two on the list were Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias Tobias, Randall L. and military strategist-columnist Ullman, Harlan K. Harlan K. Ullman; Tobias resigned because of the scandal.

Initially, Palfrey and her lawyers released only an abridged list of clients that titillated the public’s prurient interest but elicited little shock or surprise. However, on July 9, when she at last provided on her Web site an exhaustive roster of the men who had patronized her agency, the name of the ultraconservative senator from Louisiana surprised many who were unfamiliar with earlier rumors about Vitter’s behavior. In the months that followed the release of the phone records, the names of Vitter and Palfrey—who was variously dubbed the D.C. madam, the Washington madam, and the Beltway madam by the media—were staples in the media. To complicate matters, a New Orleans brothel owner also contended in print that the senator had been a client of hers years earlier. Vitter denied these latter allegations.

Vitter and his family and staff acted quickly. On the day Palfrey released her complete list of clients, Vitter, with his wife by his side, made a public announcement that he had indeed used PMA’s services five times during the late 1990’s and in early 2000 when he first came to Washington, D.C., and was a member of the House of Representatives—but not during his term as senator. Wording his announcement in religious terms, he confessed that he had sinned, that God and his wife had forgiven him, and that he hoped that the rest of the country could do likewise. This modest, apparently humble reaction to Palfrey’s scandalous revelation seemed to placate his party and his constituents in Louisiana. In fact, he seemed to suffer little in the wake of the revelation, even managing to avoid having to testify during Palfrey’s criminal trial, during which she was convicted, on April 15, of a number of charges including racketeering and money Money laundering laundering.

Determined not to return to prison, Palfrey hanged herself in a shed outside her mother’s home in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on May 1. Her conviction was abated—that is, dismissed—on May 20.

Impact

The fallout from Vitter’s association with PMA failed to scuttle his political career for a number of reasons. First, his quickly arranged press conference was a masterstroke of media spin. By couching his admission in religious terms, he turned the conference into a public act of confession and contrition, thereby strengthening his image as a devout Christian at the very moment he was most liable to accusations of patent hypocrisy. Furthermore, his open, low-keyed demeanor before the cameras was a refreshing contrast to that of other public figures in similar situations, for example, the brazen denials of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the maudlin hysterics of evangelist Swaggart, Jimmy Jimmy Swaggart, who wept copiously on national television when his own dalliance with a prostitute was made public.

Furthermore, to many in Louisiana, the mistakes Vitter made in his personal life, however much they might have contradicted his public persona, were outweighed by his accomplishments, as he was seen by many in his home state as a champion against foes to Louisiana far more serious than prostitution: David Duke and Hurricane Katrina. When former Ku Klux Klan member and neo-Nazi sympathizer Duke tried to make a political comeback in 1999 in the congressional race that Vitter ultimately won, Vitter emerged as a veritable representative of the New South who was cultured and well-spoken and who had attended Harvard and Oxford. More important, though, was his record as a tireless campaigner for his state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, often expressing the anger and resentment that many people in the state felt about the abysmally inadequate and incompetent response of the federal government to the disaster. Louisiana Congress, U.S.;David Vitter[Vitter] Vitter, David Palfrey, Deborah Jeane

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benjamin, Mark. “Fall Girls.” Ms., Summer, 2008. Investigative reporter Mark Benjamin examines the circumstances of Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s indictment for prostitution as her johns, “including sanctimonious U.S. senator David Vitter—walked away uncensured and unscathed.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duggan, Paul. “Four Former Call Girls Testify at Palfrey Trial.” The Washington Post, April 9, 2008. A brief but interesting news story about the testimony of four former escorts who worked for Palfrey at Pamela Martin & Associates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meadows, Bob, et al. “D.C. Madam: Suicide.” People, May, 2008. A touching account of Palfrey’s troubled life and her suicide upon being convicted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Shailagh. “Senator’s Number on ’Madam’ Phone List.” The Washington Post, July 10, 2007. A thoroughly detailed news report of the scandal as it was first breaking.

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