WASHINGTON – Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has been careful not to admit he paid for sex in the Washington call-girl scandal, but he could find himself in the witness chair nonetheless.
Deborah Jean Palfrey, the so-called “D.C. Madam,” said Wednesday that if the federal racketeering and money laundering case against her goes to trial, she would likely call Vitter to testify in her defense.
“It can only help my case,” Palfrey said in a telephone interview from her California home.
Palfrey, who faces up to 55 years in prison for running what prosecutors say was a $300-per-hour prostitution ring in the nation’s capital, said that Vitter would likely bolster her claim that nothing illegal occurred between the call girls and the clients.
“I don’t think he would ever get onto a witness stand and acknowledge committing a crime,” Palfrey said. “That would be the final blow for him.”
Vitter’s office declined to comment on Palfrey’s plans. The senator has acknowledged that his phone number was on the D.C. Madam’s billing records, but has admitted only committing a “very serious sin.” He has refused to elaborate, saying it is a private matter between his wife and himself.
After a week out of the public eye, Vitter returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where he was pressed by reporters everywhere he went to provide more details. The media attention largely died down Wednesday as it became evident that Vitter was not going to say anything more.
A subpoena from the defense team would likely rekindle interest in Vitter’s role in the still-unfolding call-girl scandal. Legal experts say he would have little choice but to show up at court and testify.
“Bill Clinton didn’t have any privilege from being deposed (in the Paula Jones lawsuit) and a U.S. senator wouldn’t be able to avoid a subpoena,” said Jonathan Katz, a Washington area defense attorney.
A subpoena would present Vitter with an awkward choice, legal experts said. He could say he hired a prostitute. He could assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and say nothing. Or he could acknowledge that he hired an escort but that nothing illegal happened.
“My guess is (Palfrey) thinks he won’t incriminate himself and doesn’t want to plead the Fifth because his constituents would know he did something wrong and that would hurt him in the next election,” said Thomas Key, another Washington defense lawyer. “My assumption is she is calling him because he will say something like, “Yes, I called her service but the girl and I just talked.”‘
Palfrey acknowledged she would be putting the freshman senator in a difficult position, but showed no reluctance to do it.
“My position is real simple,” Palfrey said. “If you admit you committed an illegal act, you will be a co-conspirator right along with me.”
Despite what Vitter may say, Katz said it is unlikely that he would be wrapped into the same case with Palfrey.
“He is just a customer,” Katz said. “He is small potatoes.”
Even if Vitter were to admit he paid for sex, legal experts said it is unlikely that any prosecutor would pursue the case.
If the last of Vitter’s calls was in 2001, as available records indicate, the statute of limitations has expired. Another deterrent to prosecution is that it may not be seen as worth the effort. Solicitation for prostitution carries a maximum sentence of 180 days in jail, but first offenders are generally ordered to “John School” where they spend a day “learning how bad prostitution is,” according to Katz.
“No one will want to prosecute him,” Katz said. “It would be a waste of the prosecution’s time.”
On Wednesday, Palfrey, who operated for 13 years as Pamela Martin & Assoc., dangled the possibility that more revelations about her former clients could spill out soon. She has already posted on the Internet thousands of pages of outgoing phone calls she made to clients who dialed her number seeking escorts. But she said she also hopes to soon post the 75,000 or so incoming calls she received.
She also said that she hadn’t yet released her phone records for 1997, which she hopes to post soon on her Web site. The currently posted records cover from August 1994 through August 2006. The entire record for 1997 is missing. Because multiple telephone accounts were used, additional records may also be missing.
Vitter’s return to Capitol Hill after a week out of the public eye was generally received warmly by his fellow Republican senators, who were willing to dismiss his behavior as a private transgression that he has apologized for. Apparently Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani feels the same way.
Giuliani’s campaign confirmed Wednesday that Vitter remains the Southern regional chairman.
“He is still with the campaign,” spokesman Elliot Bundy said.
PH END WALSH
(Bill Walsh can be reached at bill.walsh(at)newhouse.com. Staff writer Bruce Alpert contributed to this story.)