Washington Is Abuzz After Federal Agents Raid a Capital Prostitution Ring
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal raid against the owner of an escort service that catered to clients in the Washington area for more than a decade set the Capital buzzing yesterday, though a suggestion that the service was targeted as part of an investigation into congressional influence-peddling seems to be without foundation.
A document-sleuthing Web site, thesmokinggun.com, reported that, last week, federal agents seized bank accounts and searched the California home of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who operated an escort service known as Pamela Martin & Associates. An IRS investigator said the business was a front for prostitution.
The site said Palfrey said in an interview that the raid might have been triggered by "some Duke Cunningham-type bigwig client that got up in something."
Cunningham is a former California Congressman who was sentenced in March to more than eight years in prison in connection with a bribery scheme.
A prostitution tie to that probe is plausible in light of previous reports that one of the defense contractors who bribed Cunningham, Mitchell Wade, hired prostitutes as part of efforts to entertain lawmakers, CIA officials, and others at hotel suites in Washington.
Court records obtained yesterday by The New York Sun show that one of the items agents reported seizing from Palfrey's Vallejo, Calif., home was a "binder of notes on men for escort service." Also seized were appointment books, identification records for women, and maps of the Washington metropolitan area.
Palfrey, who has a prior prostitution-related conviction in California, told the Sun yesterday that she usually kept no record of the identity of the male clients of her service and that she had no idea whether Cunningham was among them. "He could have been. I don't know," she said.
She also said she had no knowledge of a limousine firm reportedly linked to the alleged prostitution.
Palfrey said the possibility that Cunningham was involved in her troubles was first raised by the Smoking Gun reporter.
She said she suspected that something or someone drew the federal government's interest to her escort operation but that she had no inkling about who or what that was.
"It's got to be something a whole lot bigger than me," she said. "This was a benign agency that operated discreetly and quietly for many, many, many years."
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, Channing Phillips, said he believed the raid against Palfrey was the product of a task force investigating escort services in the capital. He said he was unaware of any tie-in to corruption inquiries.
"I don't know where they're getting that from," Mr. Phillips said.
Several defense lawyers involved in the Cunningham probe also said they knew of no link.
Palfrey acknowledged running the Capital-area escort business from her home across the country, but she denied knowing that the escorts provided sex. "The thing they talk about that's not true is that they would go have sex with the client," she said.
Palfrey said the seized binder about male clients dealt with individuals she blacklisted because of their behavior.
She said she stopped maintaining that list years ago. "I don't keep any information," she said.
Both the Gun and the Sun reached Palfrey in Germany, where she said she was on a "quote-unquote-legitimate" business trip relating to a home furnishing business she runs. She said she had no inkling she was under investigation until she got a call from an alarm service last Wednesday when federal agents executed the search warrant at her home. Palfrey said an investigator told her lawyer that no criminal charges have been filed in the case.
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