This story appears in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
A decade ago, one of the biggest scandals to rock Washington, DC, was the revelation that some prominent lawmakers and government officials had allegedly been customers of Pamela Martin & Associates, an escort service operated by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a woman better known as the "DC Madam."
In October 2006, following a two-year investigation conducted by the United States Postal Inspection Service and the IRS, federal agents raided Palfrey's Vallejo, California, home and froze her bank accounts. The government, which secured an indictment against Palfrey on money laundering, illegal mail use, and prostitution-related racketeering charges, alleged that Palfrey's DC escort service was in fact a high-end prostitution ring that she had operated via phone and email from Northern California since 1993.
Palfrey, however, insisted Pamela Martin & Associates provided "legal, high-end erotic fantasy service" and that she had no idea her escorts had sex with customers. In March 2007, after she was charged, she turned over a list of nearly 10,000 phone records spanning four years to ABC News. (Palfrey said she didn't know the names of her clients. She only had their telephone numbers.)
For days leading up to ABC's exclusive interview with Palfrey, investigative reporter Brian Ross teased that Palfrey's clientele included White House officials, lobbyists, and Pentagon, FBI, and IRS employees, as well as prominent lawyers. "There are thousands of names, tens of thousands of phone numbers," Ross said.
But ABC backed away from naming names, and Palfrey accused the network of bowing to government pressure by withholding them. In the end, the network only revealed a few of the most prominent officials on Palfrey's client list, including Republican senator David Vitter, Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias—who resigned when details of his use of escorts surfaced—and an adviser to the Pentagon, Harlan Ullman.
Palfrey was back in the news last year, when her former attorney Montgomery Sibley (pictured at right) tried to get the US Supreme Court to allow the release of records from Palfrey's escort service, including customer names and Social Security numbers, which a lower court judge had already barred him and Palfrey from releasing. Sibley said the information in the Palfrey's records could impact the presidential election. The Supreme Court denied his applications.
Palfrey's brief reappearance in the news reminded me that I had not filed a Freedom of Information Act request for her file from the FBI, the IRS, and the US Postal Inspection Service. So I fired off an application, and about seven months later, the FBI sent me 54 pages but withheld 33. (The IRS has not responded and the US Postal Inspection Service has produced a couple of pages, with a promise that more are forthcoming.)
1. This document shows why the Postal Inspection Service was involved—Palfrey had long been on its radar. This December 3, 1986, letter, written by a postal inspector, alleges that Palfrey may have violated a federal law: mailing threatening communications.
2. The document says a US Navy officer, whose name is redacted on privacy grounds (that's what the b7c redaction means), had met Palfrey at the Officers' Club at NAS Miramar while on temporary duty in San Diego, and that Palfrey became "emotionally attached" to him. She mailed the officer a number of letters in which she tried to "establish a marriage," and when the officer rejected her attempts, she threatened to "destroy him both professionally and personally."
3. The document goes on to say that Palfrey's harassment of the Navy officer had become a nuisance for the US Navy. The postal inspector notes that the threatening letters may justify "at least some form of preliminary inquiry" to resolve the officer's complaint. But other documents show that Palfrey had only made a "veiled threat" that "did not meet the requirements for an investigation."
4. This synopsis notes that this page is part of what's known as an FBI "sub file." This document is part of a larger investigative file of a subject.
5. The case ID includes "333," which is an FBI classification code for legal advice and opinions, and the "WF" that follows it refers to the Washington Field Office. That makes sense since this sub file notes that an FBI agent in the Command and Tactical Operations Center was subpoenaed, demanding the production of documents in Palfrey's criminal case. But in what amounts to a new revelation, the file goes on to note that the FBI "is not one of the investigative agencies involved in this prosecution" and therefore the bureau should not have to produce any documents.
6. But it appears that this sub file was part of the file the FBI had on Palfrey in relation to her threats against the Navy officer, who, in addition to the Postal Inspection Service, had also contacted the FBI about the matter.
So the only document the FBI appears to have had was a January 15, 1987, complaint form involving the Navy officer. The officer had called the FBI and said "he had been receiving slanderous letters" from Palfrey, marking the first time that Palfrey came to the FBI's attention.
7. According to the complaint, the Navy officer said Palfrey sent letters to his wife, his Company Wing Commander, and his Wing Admiral, and that she was charging him with adultery. The FBI does not appear to have ever opened a formal investigation into Palfrey, and what became of this matter remains unknown.
In April 2008, a jury in the US District Court for DC convicted Palfrey of federal racketeering, money laundering, and two counts of using the mail for illegal purposes pertaining to her escort service. She was 52 years old.
I met with Palfrey before her sentencing, and I spoke with her by phone several times. She had reached out to me, and she claimed that in addition to phone numbers of CIA officials who used her service, she had top-secret documents implicating a CIA officer in a kickback scheme that involved government contracts awarded to his friends. Palfrey never came through with the documents, and I'm not sure she ever had what she claimed.
Her last words to me during a telephone conversation were, "Jason, they'll never take me alive."
On May 1, 2008, two weeks after her conviction, Palfrey was found hanging by a metal bar in the shed near her mother's home in Tampa, Florida. She left two suicide notes. Palfrey, who referred to her prosecution by the government in one suicide note as a "modern-day lynching," wrote that she could not spend "6–8 years behind bars."