There are plenty of places near DC to hold secret conferences about prostitution scandals. But on Friday, I found myself driving all the way up US Route 95. On the outskirts of Baltimore are a number of nondescript, inconsequential and mostly unknown municipalities. One of these is named Glen Burnie, Maryland. It’s truly a place where the concept of “desolation in Megalopolis” is completely realized. In a low, brick, windowless and largely vacant building in a largely unoccupied industrial park, somebody had set up a reasonably sturdy conference table and some reasonably comfortable chairs.
Whoever did that wasn’t too bright, however, since I, and surely all of the other guests at that meeting Friday morning, had seen that type of furniture before. It’s very distinctive stuff, manufactured by forced prisoner slave labor in the United States Federal Industries Program. A lot of the solid wood, leather upholstered furniture one encounters in high-end federal offices contains Federal Industries pieces. It’s very well made – it had to be, or else – and it lasts; some of it is over seventy years old. Open the center drawer, and you might well see a metal tag attesting the origin of such a desk, made by United States federal prisoners who were compelled to manufacture it or serve out their sentences in a dark, unheated cell, naked but for a wool blanket and in complete solitary confinement. Right we are to lecture other countries about slave labor – they don’t know how do it half as well as us, and the United States Federal Industries Program could surely give them a few useful pointers. Well, needless to say, nobody but Uncle Sam has access to any furniture like that, so the basic nature of our host was generally obvious to all attendees.
I recognized some of them, too, of course – Washington, like Hollywood or Manhattan, is really a small town. But our instructions were explicit – not a word was to be said until a gentleman, who would introduce himself as “Mr. Blue,” arrived. Which he did, about ten minutes after the appointed time for our gathering.
“Mr. Blue” distributed colored poker chips to the attendees as he spoke, “No talking, please, these poker chips are to remind you of your assigned names, Mr. Red; Mr. White; Mr. Yellow; Mr. Green,” (who was Yours Truly, BTW), “Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown, Ms. Pink.”
“Ms. Pink” spoke up right away, “Mr. Blue, I object to being designated ‘Ms. Pink.’ That designation is sexist and denigrates me as a female. Therefore, I request to be designated ‘Ms. Black’ instead.”
“There is no ‘Mr. Black,’ or ‘Ms. Black,’ ‘Ms. Pink,’” “Mr. Blue” replied. “Any time we assign code name colors, everybody wants to be ‘Mr. Black.’ Every time we’ve assigned a ‘Mr. Black,’ there was a huge argument about who would get to be ‘Mr. Black.’ So it’s policy now – nobody gets to be ‘Mr. Black;’ and that goes for anybody who wants to be ‘Ms. Black,’ too. The poker chips are merely so you can remember what your color is when called upon to speak, ‘Ms. Pink.’ So pick another color and we can proceed from there.”
“Very well,” “Ms. Pink” replied, “I want to be ‘Ms. Obsidian.’”
“That’s just an synonym for ‘Ms. Black,’” “Mr. Orange” objected, “and if she gets to be ‘Ms. Obsidian,’ then I want to be ‘Mr. Midnight,’ not ‘Mr. Orange.’”
“Forget about it, both of you,” “Mr. Blue” shot back, “no synonyms or metaphors for ‘Mr. Black’ or ‘Ms. Black,’ either. ‘Ms. Pink,’ choose another color, not to exceed gray in darkness.”
“Okay,” “Ms. Pink” pondered briefly, “I’ll be ‘Ms. Oxblood.’”
“Mr. Red’s” eyebrows shot up – “Is ‘oxblood’ a color?”
“Yes,” “Mr. Blue” sighed, “I’m afraid it is. All right, ‘Ms. Oxblood.’”
“I note that your shoes, handbag and briefcase are all oxblood,” said “Mr. Green” (who, as I have mentioned, was me), “perfectly coordinated and matched for tone, too.” I smiled beguilingly at “Ms. Oxblood.”
“Thanks, Tom,” said ”Ms. Oxblood.”
“No names,” shouted “Mr. Blue.”
As usual, I had my concealed mini-microphone fired up, and last Friday it was sending encrypted WiFi audio to the ultra-thin Linux lap top concealed in my briefcase. Here’s how things went:
Mr. Blue: Now that we have that stuff out of the way and everybody has a code name color, we can get down to business. Some of you, such as Ms. Oxblood, may recognize others here at this meeting, but under no circumstances are you to address anyone by any designation other than their color code name. We have summoned you here because you are the best and brightest minds for hire in Washington. Each and every one of you has headed off seemingly unstoppable crises, found the answers to apparently insoluble problems, and created excuses for obviously inexcusable infractions. Today, my superiors bring you a situation that is an infraction shrouded in a problem, wrapped in a crisis – I am speaking, of course, about the Jeane Palfrey affair.
Mr. Green: You mean the “escort service” operator whom the FBI alleges was in fact the operator of an expensive prostitution ring in Washington?
Mr. Blue: Precisely. After arresting and charging Ms. Palfrey, the Government exercised its legal powers and confiscated everything Ms. Palfrey possessed. Consequently, she now has no money to pay an attorney to defend her. But instead of taking the hint and cutting a deal with federal authorities, Ms. Palfrey put up a Web site, on which she started a defense fund collection and posted excerpts from her extensive cache of escort service telephone records. Now she’s seeking to sell the entire stack of telephone records to the highest bidder in order to raise money for her defense. Our problem is that we are by no means certain that the Government can stop Ms. Palfrey from doing just that. Certainly, the FBI and the Justice Department have done everything they can to delay publication of those records, and they may well succeed in keeping them permanently classified. But we cannot assume that will happen. Even if the courts side with the Government, somebody could still leak part or all of those records. That’s the subject of this meeting – if and when these records are published, what can the individuals whose telephone numbers expose them as clients of this escort service do or say to mitigate or neutralize the effects?
Mr. White: Palfrey had all of her employees sign statements that they would only engage in legal erotic services…
Mr. Brown: Is there a consistent definition for “legal erotic services?”
Mr. White: Don’t ask me – I’m not a lawyer. Any lawyers here?
Mr. Yellow: I’m a lawyer, but I don’t specialize in that kind of thing. However, I would say that it’s possible that the nature of certain erotic services could be such that their commission does not fall under the legal definition of prostitution.
Mr. White: Right, so these legal erotic services were the only things Ms. Palfrey says she was selling. And her employees all signed agreements not to break any civil or criminal laws and also agreed, in writing, that they would not use any illegal drugs or engage in illegal sexual acts under any circumstances. So, it would seem to me, the first thing anyone whose number appears in those records should do is claim that’s what they asked for, and that’s what they got – legal erotic services.
Mr. Green: No, the first thing anybody whose telephone number appears in those records should do is say the escort service dialed the wrong number.
Ms. Oxblood: Right; unless they called numerous times…
Mr. Yellow: Mr. Green is right even then, because they could claim that the escort service’s actual client probably just had a number similar to theirs. After all, there’s nothing a person can do to prevent someone else from calling their telephone number, is there? Diamond Jim the pimp can call Chief Justice John Robert’s home phone; Justice Roberts can answer it and say “Who’s this?” and so forth, and Diamond Jim can string him along for a minute or two before Justice Roberts loses patience with this unknown fool who called him at home and hangs up on him. Nothing could even be insinuated, much less proved, from such a telephone record.
Mr. Red: Sure, sure, claim it was a wrong number, but that will only come across as believable if the call was one of a very few, and all the calls were of very short duration.
Mr. Green: Mr. Blue, can you give us an estimate of the percentage of calls that were under ninety seconds and the percentage of calls that were made from the escort service to a particular number only once?
Mr. Blue: I’m entering that query into the database constructed from the escort service call records. Approximately 72 percent of the calls made are 90 seconds or less. But about 65 percent of the calls are part of multiple sets made to single telephone numbers.
Mr. Brown: I’ve seen the records posted on the Web site you mentioned, Mr. Blue, and it appears to me that the data on that page are roughly consistent with your findings over the entire database, which contains calls made over a period of thirteen years. It seems rather strange in some cases, though. For example, the escort service would call a number in, say, Alexandria, Virginia, for twenty-four seconds, then hang up, call again a minute later from the same number for thirty seconds, hang up, then call back a minute later for fifteen seconds, then hang up, and so forth.
Mr. Red: Could those be multiple attempts to contact somebody in person because the caller does not wish to leave a message?
Mr. Blue: That’s one possible explanation. Okay, thank you Mr. Green, I agree that the first thing the people whose telephone numbers appear in the records should investigate is whether they can say the escort service dialed the wrong number and they don’t know anything about what Ms. Palfrey’s employees did or did not do with somebody else, whom Ms. Palfrey was presumably attempting to contact instead. And certainly, Mr. White’s suggestion is also a good one, although it might only be necessary to resort to it if Mr. Green’s recommended initial evasion strategy is inappropriate.
Mr. Orange: Such as when a call from the escort service was longer than a couple of minutes – nobody would believe that was a wrong number. You talk to Ms. Palfrey for five minutes, it’s pretty obvious you’re discussing scheduling a visit from one of her “independent erotic contractors;” at which point you have to follow Mr. White’s suggested strategy, cite the signed agreements the girls had with Palfrey and claim nothing illegal happened.
Ms. Oxblood: That’s “women,” Mr. Orange, not “girls.”
Mr. Orange: Oh, come on, Ms. Oxblood – these are prostitutes we’re talking about here!
Ms. Oxblood: That’s still no reason to use sexist terminology!
Mr. Blue: Alright, alright, whatever, Ms. Oxblood. Mr. Orange, please refrain from politically incorrect speech while discussing the alleged prostitution ring.
Mr. White: But if one of Ms. Palfrey’s former customers cites the terms of employment as proof that nothing illegal occurred, how would the former customer answer reporters’ questions as to what, in fact, did occur; that is, what specific acts of entertainment, in fact, did the customer receive as services?
Mr. Orange: Well, there could be number of actions that might be technically legal between consenting adults in the context of a paid-entertainment contract – for instance, I suppose they could engage in a bondage and discipline fantasy…
Mr. Brown: Or an adult baby fantasy…
Mr. Yellow: Along those lines, then, perhaps they could engage in an oversized stuffed animal bestiality simulation fantasy…
Mr. White: Necrophilia fantasy….
Mr. Red: Mock coprophagia fantasy with Snickers bars softened in a microwave oven…
Ms. Oxblood: And don’t forget dressing up in high heels and leather and whipping guys while they crawl around in thong underwear – the whole dominatrix thing! I, ah, know a woman who does that, uh, on the side, moonlighting, you know, and it’s perfectly legal in the District of Columbia.
Mr. Blue: Ah, yes, thank you Ms. Oxblood. That, too. Mr. Green?
Mr. Green: Sorry, I was trying to keep my lunch down. Uh, my gut reaction would be to just say “none of your business, you nosy reporter;” but if the alleged customers have to admit to something, why not keep it as innocent sounding as possible – belly dancing, superhero costume role playing, truth-or-dare, that kind of thing?
Mr. White: Doesn’t that strain credulity, though? I mean, here’s Ms. Palfrey’s former customer, asking the public to believe that he, or possibly she, paid Ms. Palfrey’s business hundreds of dollars an hour to play bathing suit hop-scotch with one of Ms. Palfrey’s employees?
Mr. Green: Not at all. Number one, Washington is full of overpaid idiots who don’t know what to do with their money; number two, those overpaid idiots in Washington generally have love lives so pathetic, they lack sufficient genuine experience to have real sex effectively, anyway; and, number three, it’s so damn boring to live in Washington, paying a thousand dollars to play topless tiddlywinks for ninety minutes qualifies as an unforgettable, soul-transforming apotheosis of salacious excitement. There’s nobody outside the Beltway who will have the least bit of trouble believing that – most of them either know it already or have strongly suspected that’s the case since they were old enough to comprehend television news.
Mr. Blue: I think Mr. Green is on the right track here. If a person’s telephone number appears in the records, and the telephone conversations can’t be explained away as a wrong numbers because they are too long and/or the calls are repeated as well as lengthy, then the alleged customer should point out, as Mr. White suggests, the nature of the work agreements between Ms. Palfrey and her employees; then, if pressed for details, follow Mr. Green’s recommendation and describe something that’s kind of naughty, but not very, and legal in the jurisdiction where the entertainment services were rendered. But what if DOJ arrests the girls – ah, I mean, women – who worked for Ms. Palfrey and one or more of them becomes a Government witness? What if, under those circumstances, the Government witness or witnesses allege that a customer did indeed engage in illegal activities with them?
Mr. Green: It’s my understanding that Ms. Palfrey has already sued one of her former employees for damages resulting from that employee’s violation of her agreements with Ms. Palfrey. It would be reasonable to assume that in each additional instance where a former employee turned state’s evidence, Ms. Palfrey would, in turn, sue that person in a similar manner.
Mr. Blue: So that could limit the willingness of some of Ms. Palfrey’s former employees to cooperate with the Government?
Mr. Green: Well, if they really, really did commit prostitution, then they should admit it to the federal investigators, of course, and supply those investigators with all the juicy details, too, not leaving any out, not even the saucy little ones, and most especially, not omitting the truly hot, steamy, noisy ones – because those are the ones federal investigators do indeed most like to hear. That is, they should, unless, on the other hand, they’d like to exercise their right not to incriminate themselves under the Fifth Amendment, use their constitutional right to counsel, be read their Miranda Warning, put a sock in it or lawyer up and all that stuff, which, I supposed they might want to do instead. But Ms. Palfrey’s strategy is bound to discourage any of her former employees who are detained and questioned from making things up.
Mr. Blue: Under what circumstances would one of her former employees make up things that were not true?
Mr. Green: If, for example, one of Ms. Palfrey’s former clients is a member of Congress or other elected official, and the US Attorney General, or the current Administration, disapproves of them for political reasons, then it is conceivable that the former employees who entertained that client might be arrested and subjected to pressures that could cause them to fabricate testimony in order to avoid being prosecuted themselves. That’s just a possibility, of course. I have no evidence or reason to believe that the current DOJ leadership or any current member of the Administration would necessarily ever do anything like that, because it wouldn’t be honest or fair, after all, to try and nail some liberal Democratic senator, for example, with sex charges in order to affect majority party control of the United States Senate, when, in reality, all he or she really did was dress up like Batman and pretend to seduce one of Ms. Palfrey’s employees who was dressed up like Cat Woman, or, possibly, Robin; all the while thoughtfully constraining their actions, of course, to only those erotic expressions which were legal forms of entertainment in the jurisdiction in which the services were rendered.
Mr. Blue: Yeah, but what if they get nailed?
Mr. Green: You mean, what if the former clients of this service are actually guilty of receiving services of prostitution?
Mr. Blue: Ah, what I mean is, suppose the evidence available to the government is sufficiently great as to constitute a condition of nolo contendere?
Mr. Green: Oh, of course, I should have known that’s what you meant.
Mr. Red: Under those circumstances, I think it would be appropriate for the former client to go ahead and reveal that they were conducting a secret investigation of Ms. Palfrey’s business.
Mr. Orange: Provided, of course, that they have some standing as a member of a legitimate governmental body, such as the House Judiciary Committee, that would render such an investigation at least theoretically legal…
Mr. Yellow: … and, I might add, that they can produce some sort of tangible or testimonial evidence that their intent was investigatory…
Mr. White: … and they are prepared to publicly denounce any physical pleasure they might, as a result of performing such heroic duties, have experienced…
Ms. Oxblood: … and as a fall-back position, be prepared to enter rehab for sex addiction…
Mr. Green: Nope. Forget about it. That’s been used so many times before, nobody will cop to it anymore. It’s just not viable.
Mr. Brown: I must concur with Mr. Green. “I was conducting an investigation on my own,” that’s what John DeLorean said when they caught him with a suitcase full of pure, rock crystal Colombian coke, wasn’t it?
Mr. Green: Yes, it was. That strategy is nothing but a one-way ticket to disgrace and the jailhouse, in my humble opinion, at least.
Mr. Blue: Okay, well, scratch the “I was investigating the prostitution ring” angle then. So what should the clients who are, as I said before, in a situation where the evidence available to the government is sufficiently great as to constitute a condition of nolo contendere do, then?
Ms. Oxblood: Assuming that they are, in fact, in reality, under law, and in the eyes of The Lord Almighty, actually innocent of the charges?
Mr. Blue: Well, of course. Yes, assuming that in fact, in reality, under law, and in the eyes of The Lord Almighty, they are actually innocent of the charges.
Mr. Green: Then, it stands to reason that at least some part of the evidence sufficient to convict is false. That would most likely be the testimony of Ms. Palfrey’s former employee or employees. Therefore, the subject’s counsel should direct their questioning so as to cast doubt upon the reliability of that witness or witnesses.
Mr. Yellow: Certainly, if the witness made a deal with the prosecution, that should come out in front of the jury.
Mr. Blue: I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. These strategies assume the case goes to trial. Can’t we deal with it beforehand? Isn’t there some way to avoid this?
Mr. Brown: I think Mr. Yellow will agree with me when I observe that if the federal authorities decided to arrest, or if the federal attorneys decide to prosecute, they will, and there’s no sure-fire way to ensure they don’t make such a decision.
Ms. Oxblood: Has anyone considered temporary insanity?
At this point, the conference room door caved in under the assault of a four-man battering ram, resonating with a loud and startling BOOM as it hit the floor. Three suits and an eight-man US Marshals SWAT team rushed in with shouts of “FBI!” “Federal search warrant!” and “Down on the floor!”
Never being one to argue with eight machine guns, I assumed the position as quickly as possible. Inside of ninety seconds, the SWAT team had all of us face down and handcuffed with those plastic contraptions that resemble overgrown trash bag ties.
Almost immediately, a Stygian stench invaded my nostrils. Glancing to my left, I observed that “Mr. Blue” had copiously soiled and wet himself in terror, the room rapidly waxing redolent of his raunchy reek. “Please, please, please,” he whimpered, “don’t shoot me. I’m a GS-14. Please, please…”
“Mr. Brown,” who is more than a bit portly, and whom I know by his real name, is also nearly seventy years old. These two conditions caused him to be the most tardy of our gathering to comply with our new guests’ urgent entreaties. That earned him an assault rifle butt applied smartly to the back of his head. As a consequence, he was, although still conscious, knocked silly – “Momma, is that you? Where are you, Momma?” he cried out softly. “Ms. Oxblood,” it seemed, had fainted; although I’m sure she would demand that I use a more politically correct term, such as “passed out.”
Now, the composition of our meeting had been diverse enough to satisfy any EEO panel. In addition to a woman, and a senior citizen, we had, I now noticed, a disabled person – lying on the floor, I could now see that “Mr. Red” had an artificial right leg, which one of the FBI agents presently stepped upon, twisting it out of position – accidentally, I am sure, although “Mr. Red” let out a whoop and went limp, nonetheless. We also had “Mr. Yellow,” who was black, “Mr. White,” whom I know to be of Hispanic origin, and “Mr. Orange,” who was obviously either an Asian or a Pacific Islander. The fellow who was, I suppose, the leader of the SWAT team gave “Mr. Orange” a swift kick in the ribs with his jack boot and demanded “Okay, Chang, where’s the duplication equipment? Who’s your contact in Taiwan?”
“My name’s not ‘Chang,’” “Mr. Orange” replied indignantly, “and I was born and raised in San Diego, California!”
There then ensued a pregnant pause. I cannot truthfully say that it was an awkward silence, per se, since “Mr. Blue” continued to blubber and tremble, now wetting the carpet further with copious tears and snot, while “Mr. Brown” still called out in delirium for his mother, and, I must admit, “Mr. Red” gasped quite audibly, suppressing what must surely have been an horrendous shriek of pain resulting from the FBI agent continuing to lean, quite accidently, I am sure, on his dislocated artificial leg, and as “Ms. Oxblood” was coming to, in a manner of speaking, slowly moaning the first name of a fellow I know; but I figured it was about as quiet as it was going to get. So I asked the Question. It was a classic question, like that question of the elephant in the parlor, the one concerning the crazy aunt who lives upstairs, the one pertaining to the baby with the moustache lying next to the deacon’s wife, the one relating to who is, in fact, buried in Grant’s tomb, or, the one about just exactly how many beans do indeed make five – “Are you gentlemen absolutely certain that you are at the correct address?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as anxious glances flew around the room from the FBI agents to the US Marshals and back. Finally, one of the FBI agents pulled out a cell phone, punched in a number and started to talk. As the conversation grew progressively more strident and filled with expletives and recriminations, it became clear to me that, although we should not have been completely nonplussed had these gentlemen come calling, their search warrant did, in fact, specify another venue for their heroic actions of the day.
Inside of a minute after the conclusion of that cell phone conversation, the SWAT team had unceremoniously clipped off our plastic cuffs and then stormed out of the room after the FBI agents.
I waited until the last one cleared the doorway, counted to ten, got up, grabbed my briefcase and ran out. In the lobby, I looked out onto the street, where I saw a collection of black sedans and Chevy Suburbans with tinted windows wheel around and roar off down the street. The lobby had two entrances, so I exited through the other to the parking lot at the back of the building where my car was parked. I jumped in and drove back to Great Falls, listening to news radio stations all the way, attempting to hear a report that might explain who those FBI agents and the SWAT team were really after.
I had no luck with that, and so spent a number of hours piecing things together over the weekend. I used what I had overheard during the unwelcome intrusion on the meeting I attended, particularly that discussion on the cell phone, as a starting point for some Internet searches and a few telephone calls of my own.
As nearly as I can reconstruct things, the FBI was chasing a ring of pirates operating out of Taiwan – not the Long John Silver or even the Somali speedboat type of pirates, but instead, a ring of information pirates. These miscreants were making unauthorized copies of crappy music, like Britney Spears, crappy movies like “300,” and crappy software like Vista. Most incredibly, and, for reasons completely beyond my humble comprehension, these guys were making millions of dollars selling those copies of such crap to people.
What kind of people, I can scarcely imagine – the sort of unfortunates who are what happens when first cousins marry, perhaps. But if that’s the explanation, why are there so damn many of them? There’s got to be more to it than that, but as to what, I’m stumped. In any case, motivated by urges beyond the ken of civilized and educated individuals, and apparently unrestrained by any discernible intelligence, or even the most rudimentary form of judgement, millions of people do, strange as it may seem, actually buy copies of such unmitigated crap. There are even some, who, being, what I can only assume is by some inexplicable accident of nature, merely more affluent than the others, actually buy the genuine versions of such pathetic, fatuous, vapid, botched, revolting and worthless crap. Perhaps the Reverend Sun Yung Moon or the shade of Ronald Wilson Reagan could shed some light on the issue, but I’m all at sea with respect to it, I fear – crap at full price or half price or even for next to nothing is still crap, as far as I can figure it, and why anybody would buy crap is beyond me.
Needless to say, those honest, hard-working, law-abiding, upstanding pillars of our society, the popular music industry, as represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the major motion picture studios, as represented by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Microsoft, represented by the Business Software Alliance (BSA) have been demanding that the feds do something about unauthorized copying and sale of their half-witted, fatally flawed, moronic crap to what are apparently buyers with the intelligent quotients of gold fish. So what happened on Friday is proof positive that by golly, the feds are doing something about it – well, at least that they are trying to do something about it, anyway.
But the best laid plans of mice and men oft gang agley, as Robert Burns once wrote – about the mice and men, at least; I will venture no assessment on whether US federal law enforcement officers qualify as either. It seems that the industrial park where the Taiwan gang had set up its stateside operations was in one of those suburban districts where, for reasons known only to real estate developers and, perhaps, to God, the addresses are five digits long. It has never made sense to me why, on a suburban street, road, avenue or boulevard perhaps a mile long, which could never, ever, in the remotest imagination of any sane person contain more than one thousand addresses, and which, in fact, almost always contains less than one hundred, the house or building numbers have to be five digits long. But that’s what they do, designating this ticky-tacky box or that dingy pile of bricks “13789 Arm Hair Circle,” “76921 Toe Jam Drive,” or “59283 Frog Wart Highway,” isn’t it? The examples are as endless as they are senseless and aggravating. Go figure.
So, it seems, the third and fourth digits of the address of the building where the pirates could be found had been transposed, leading the FBI and its SWAT team to burst in on “Mr. Blue” and his consultants instead. Their arrival, in force, driving such blatantly conspicuous federal law enforcement vehicles, followed by their less-than-subtle methods of entry, seem to have tipped off their true intended targets. Nothing, it would seem, was found when they finally broke down the door at the correct address.
But I have something – quite the souvenir, I must say – one of those plastic fed handcuffs, neatly snipped open. Tomorrow, I’m driving over to Bethesda, where I shall buy a tasteful velvet backing and a sleek, glass-fronted metal frame for it. I think it will look nice mounted on the wall in my study.