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Vitter's Close Call | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Vitter's Close Call

Imagine this scenario: A young congressional aide who moonlights for an escort service receives a call from her madam. The woman who owns the service asks her to meet a customer at a certain spot and time. When the aide/escort arrives, she sees that the client is a member of Congress and sits on the very same committee where she works. Embarrassing? Uncomfortable? A potential scandal? They now each know a big secret about the other. She knows he is using an escort service. He knows she is working for that same service. What do they do? Is his--or her--political career in peril?

The records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a.k.a. the DC Madam, suggest that Republican Senator David Vitter came close to experiencing such an awkward moment when he served in the House of Representatives. These phone records indicate that Palfrey may have set Vitter up with an escort who was a staffer for a congressional committee that included Vitter as a member. But if the two did meet for an escort experience, Vitter escaped being found out by his (indirect) subordinate.

According to the aide/escort--whose name I'm not revealing--she would not have recognized Vitter. "It's entirely conceivable," she says, "that I encountered him [while working as an escort for Palfrey] and did not know it." This woman notes that she had been with the committee a brief time, had attended only a few of its meetings, and was not familiar with all of its members. "I wouldn't know him if I saw him," she says. Throughout her stint working for Palfrey, this woman notes, "I did not come across anyone I recognized, no public figures....We [escorts] didn't know them. They didn't know us."

Vitter has acknowledged calling Pamela Martin and Associates, the escort service Palfrey ran until 2006. "This was a very serious sin in my past," he said in a statement released to the Associated Press on July 9, after Time magazine notified his office that Vitter's phone number was on Palfrey's billing records. (A Hustler editor contacted Vitter's office minutes after a Time reporter did.) But Vitter, who has campaigned on family values and who argued in 1998 that President Bill Clinton had to be impeached for his immoral conduct, has refused to say anything specific about his use of the escort service, and he has declined to resign from the Senate. Vitter's office did not respond to a request for a comment for this story.

According to Palfrey, this is how her business worked. A prospective client would call a local Washington phone number. She would answer the call at her Vallejo, California, home. (Most of her billing records do not show these incoming calls.) The man would ask for an escort and perhaps make special requests. Palfrey would then phone her employees in Washington to find someone appropriate for the customer. Next, she would call the client back and confirm the session. These long-distance outgoing calls to her escorts and to the customers are listed on her phone bills. As she explains it, in certain instances one can determine which woman was dispatched to a client by looking at the phone numbers that appear before the phone number of the customer. On one phone bill, the number of the aide/escort appears before a phone number for Vitter.

The phone records are not conclusive evidence that this congressional aide and Vitter had a professional meeting outside the committee room. But Palfrey says that would be a reasonable reading of the documents. (Palfrey says she has no direct knowledge that Vitter was a client because she knew most of her customers by first names or aliases. She no longer has detailed records showing which escorts visited which clients.)

I am not naming the aide/escort because this woman, unlike Vitter, has not engaged in public hypocrisy. Also, I have no evidence she broke the law. (Palfrey claims her women engaged in fantasy role-playing with their customers; the government, in its prosecution of Palfrey, maintains she ran a prostitution ring.) This woman left Capitol Hill and Palfrey's business years ago. With the help of investigative reporter Dan Moldea, who first discovered Vitter's number on Palfrey's telephone bills while working with Larry Flynt, I found her. When I contacted her, she was unaware that Palfrey had been busted, that Palfrey had posted the escort service's telephone records on the Internet, or that Vitter had been caught in the scandal. She asked me not to use her name: "It was a long time ago."

It's a curious episode. Vitter might have hired an escort with whom he worked in Congress. In most circumstances, committee aides can recognize the lawmakers they serve. What might have happened had this aide done so with Vitter? Exposure? Intrigue? Danger? "It was apparently a very close call," the woman says. "This could make a great a screenplay." But in this situation--if it did come to pass--Vitter was lucky. He was not on her radar screen. The congressman would have been just another john.

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JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

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