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In 'D.C. Madam's' phone records, a slice of Washington

  • Story Highlights
  • Deborah Jean Palfrey is accused of running a Washington-area prostitution ring
  • The "D.C. Madam" denies charges, saying she ran an escort service
  • Palfrey released 12 years of phone records as part of defense strategy
  • Sen. David Vitter admitted he "sinned" after number found in phone records
  • Next Article in Politics »
From Justine Redman
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Euphemisms abound for prostitution, but spend a week combing through the phone records of the so-called "D.C. Madam," and it's clear that "call girl" is far and away the most apt. It is all about the calls.

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Deborah Jean Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam," says her escort service had more than 10,000 clients over 13 years.

Deborah Jean Palfrey is a California woman facing federal charges of running an illegal prostitution ring in the Washington area.

She contends it was an escort agency in the most literal sense, and that any eroticism between her escorts and their customers was strictly "fantasy," not hands-on.

That hasn't stopped exposed clients Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, from admitting he "sinned" and high-ranking State Department official Randall Tobias from resigning for "personal reasons."

Which brings us to the phone calls. As part of her defense strategy, two weeks ago Palfrey published scans of 12 years worth of her escort agency's phone bills. The bills don't detail names -- only phone numbers dialed from Palfrey's accounts. Armies of researchers have deployed, doing reverse searches on these numbers in a bid to match them up to the phones' owners.

When CNN's Larry King asked Palfrey on Tuesday how many well-known people's names she expects to turn up, Palfrey responded, "Well, Larry, I absolutely have no idea. We estimate statistically there are approximately 20 to 30 to 100 possibilities. And this is based upon a rough estimate of 10,000 clients who used the service over the past 13 or so years from 1993 to 2006." Video Watch Palfrey's lawyer tell CNN that there are more escort services in D.C. than McDonald's »

What have CNN's researchers found so far, apart from five instances of the apologetic Vitter's number? Quite a lot of doctors, actually, and people in the tech industry. Armchair sociologists will make of that what they will. Lots of lawyers, too, but of course in Washington it sometimes feels like everyone is a lawyer. Others run the gamut from the sports world to college professors.

But in many ways, it's a uniquely Washington picture that emerges. Noteworthy are the numbers traceable to private properties on Capitol Hill, in neighborhoods heavily populated by "Hill-types" (as they're known in Beltway jargon), be they members of Congress, staffers, or entourage.

Records indicate a handful of numbers have belonged to people working in federal government; a couple in local politics, and a couple more at government contractors.

"But the thing is, everybody's somebody in Washington," points out Anne Schroeder of The Politico, one of the first Washington journalists to seize on the scandal potential of Palfrey's case. "Whether you answer the phone for a senator, or for a lobbyist, or you're somebody's daughter's best friend. But unless you live here and know everyone, you don't know who they are."

The Washington Post makes an appearance. Was Palfrey contacting a client there? Calling in a news tip? The extension dialed was the one for placing advertisements in the paper. A spokesman for the Washington Post continues to investigate at CNN's request, but so far is unable to determine the nature of the call or whether the Post was one of the publications that ran ads for "Pamela Martin and Associates."

Palfrey has said that business was best when Congress was in session, and the phone bills support that. Of course, that doesn't mean the boost in clientele came specifically from representatives and senators.

When Congress is in session the city's population inflates, buzzing with lobbyists and activists and others who typically drift away when the politicians go home to their constituencies.

"There's a reason why D.C. is called 'Hollywood for ugly people,' " Schroeder says. "Going out to fancy restaurants, drinking expensive whiskey, living the high life -- lobbyists kind of embody that. I think it's a well-known fact, or well presumed, that there are lobbyists who will call a call girl or call an escort service as a part of his business. It's not just lobbyists, but they embody that kind of lifestyle, and have that slick, fun air about them."

Nonetheless, the hefty load of numbers for homes in the leafy suburbs of Maryland and Virginia suggests that Palfrey had a solid base of local clients, too. In fact, more calls were made to Maryland and Virginia than to numbers with the District of Columbia area code (202).

While broad pictures like this are one thing, pointing fingers at clients is quite another. Documentation and paper trails are usually the jackpot of investigative journalism, but anyone who's struggled to decipher their own phone bill can begin to appreciate the difficulties of analyzing a four-foot high stack of somebody else's.

Add to that the fact that a very high proportion of the calls are for cell phone numbers, and it's not a straightforward puzzle. Not only are there no comprehensive directories of cell phone numbers, but these numbers also can get recycled through customers so quickly that it can be extremely difficult to determine whose phone it was at the time Palfrey was calling it.

For example, our eyebrows perked up when we came across a cell phone number for a popular local radio host. After expressing utter amazement that his number featured in the D.C. Madam's records and denying any connection to her, he initially told CNN that he'd had that phone number as far back as 2000 or 2001 but he couldn't remember the exact date.

The date was crucial. After calling his cell phone provider to check, the velvety-voiced host reported back that he'd opened his account in spring 2002 (the company refused to disclose this to anyone other than the customer). The call to his number was made in January 2001.

Providing he was telling the truth, he was off the hook. "At least I've got a funny story to tell my friends," he said.

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The numbers can reliably give us insight into Palfrey's own life, though. Orchestrating her escort agency from her California home, her typical day began at 8 a.m. From then on it was a telethon until around 11 p.m., taking and making calls in rapid succession, the occasional break usually lasting no more than 30 to 45 minutes.

The calls themselves were generally short -- under three minutes each. If nothing else, the record shows that the alleged madam was a hard-working girl. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Ebonne Ruffins, Kirsty McNamara, Liz Landau, and Karen Hopkins contributed to this report

All About David VitterDeborah Jeane Palfrey

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