Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Hounded to Death

Faced with the prospect of years in prison, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” committed suicide on Thursday. Her pursuers and prosecutors should be ashamed of themselves.

Running a house of prostitution is not a distinction most of us would wish for our daughters. But it’s a vice, not a crime. That’s a crucial distinction in a free society. So far as we know, she never murdered, raped, assaulted, robbed, or defrauded anyone. Like any broker, she brought together willing buyers and willing sellers. And for doing so, she was convicted–not actually of prostitution but of “racketeering” and money laundering — and faced up to 55 years in prison, though prosecutors estimated that her sentence would likely be “only” four to six years.

Palfrey was indicted after a three-year joint investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently they couldn’t catch her cheating on her taxes, but her employees mailed her cut of the proceeds in money orders, which led to racketeering and money laundering charges. As with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, apparently a fishing expedition into money matters turned up something far more headline-worthy.

But really — a three-year investigation of a prostitution service? Are there no real criminals? Are there no terrorists? Before, during, and after 9/11, the Justice Department ran a 13-month investigation of a brothel in New Orleans. At least 10 FBI agents were involved. As Jonathan Turley noted, “Only the FBI could go to the French Quarter and find only a dozen prostitutes after a year of investigation. Given the roughly one-to-one ratio between agents and prostitutes, the FBI could have produced a hundred times this number by simply having agents walk down Bourbon Street.” What a ridiculous waste of money and manpower.

But the waste is not the worst aspect of this outrage. Even if there were no criminals and no terrorists to hunt down, it would be wrong to harass, arrest, prosecute, imprison — and hound to death — people who are violating no one’s rights.

There’s a nightmarish intersection of old prostitution laws and modern financial regulations. Palfrey was investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and then convicted of “racketeering” and “money laundering.” But she was no racketeer; she was one woman with some employees or contract workers. Spitzer’s bank accounts were being monitored, as apparently all our bank accounts are, under post-9/11 laws allegedly designed to turn up evidence of terrorist financing or other nefarious activity. And boy, did they find something sinister — a married man having sex with prostitutes.

In many ways we are more free today than we were in previous decades. But new regulations and new technology are making it much easier to monitor our activities and to actually enforce both old and new laws. It’s like a silent police state that we only realize when we’re suddenly served with papers. 

Palfrey told journalist Dan Moldea, “I’m not going back to jail. I’ll kill myself first.” A woman who had worked for her had also committed suicide after being charged with prostitution in 2007.

It’s time to repeal these antiquated laws against prostitution and to take a close look at the use and abuse of racketeering, money laundering, bank monitoring, and other intrusive laws. Someone needs to step forward and start that debate. Perhaps Governor Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter would be good candidates.

In the meantime, may Deborah Jeane Palfrey rest in peace. And may her persecutors have many sleepless nights.