How Flynt Exposed David Vitter
U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Republican From Louisiana, Kept His Double Life Hidden For Years—Until He Crossed Paths With An Investigative Team Headed By Larry Flynt.
FEBRUARY 27, 2001, was a crisp winter Tuesday in Washington, D.C. With the nation awaiting George W. Bush’s first budget speech that evening, it was a slow workday on Capitol Hill. It was also Mardi Gras, and Congressman David Vitter—a native of the New Orleans area—was in a mood to celebrate. At 3:06 p.m., Vitter’s phone received a return call from Pamela Martin & Associates, an elite escort service that he had used on four prior occasions. The lawmaker had a couple of hours to kill before he was due back on the Hill for the day’s only roll call vote. It’s not known whether Vitter took the call personally, but its length—1.2 minutes—suggests that he did.
What happened next only Vitter and his unidentified escort know for certain, but in the congressman’s preferred vocabulary it was most definitely a “sin.” Three years later, Vitter—a married, churchgoing Catholic and father of four—ran for the U.S. Senate as a self-proclaimed guardian of the “sanctity of marriage.” In a foreshadowing of events to come, a member of the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee accused the candidate of engaging in an extended affair with a New Orleans prostitute. Vitter seized on the lack of hard evidence to claim the allegation was just “crass Louisiana politics.” The spin worked; he became the state’s first popularly elected Republican U.S. senator.
In 2006, less than a year before his double life would blow up in his face, Vitter was vehemently trying to legislate the sex lives of free Americans. In lockstep with Bush’s Religious Right agenda, he coauthored the Federal Marriage Amendment, a bill that sought to prohibit same-sex nuptials. In a stunning display of tactlessness, he even compared gay marriage to hurricanes Rita and Katrina—deadly storms that had recently devastated his home district. As if he hadn’t already set himself up as the perfect hypocrite, the philandering senator became an avid proponent of abstinence-only sex education. Vitter wrote a letter in June 2007 endorsing the reauthorization of the Title V Abstinence Education Program, which taught that “saving sex until marriage and remaining faithful afterwards is the best choice for health and happiness.”
Like the Federal Marriage Amendment, the measure failed. In what would turn out to be a colossal blunder, GOP Presidential nominee Rudolph Giuliani tapped Vitter to be his 2008 campaign’s Southern Regional Chairman. Despite his own carefully honed myth as the mayor of 9/11, the New Yorker was seen in the conservative South as a wily city slicker. Basically, Vitter’s job was to lend Giuliani some Bible Belt credibility. But for at least the past decade, Vitter had been living a risky double life: secretly paying prostitutes for sex while publicly legislating on matters of morality. And the longer he got away with it, the more arrogant and overconfident he became. Vitter’s 2001 Mardi Gras phone call finally came back to haunt him in the summer of 2007, when “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s phone records fell into the hands of HUSTLER Magazine investigative journalist Dan E. Moldea. A year earlier, acting on an IRS warrant, federal agents had raided Palfrey’s home.
Over $1 million in assets was seized, and the madam was slapped with racketeering and money-laundering charges. But the Feds overlooked a key prize: a stack of phone records documenting a decade of contacts with Palfrey’s cohorts and clientele. Moldea, a longtime associate of Larry Flynt, had been instrumental in exposing hypocritical GOP Congressmen Robert Livingston and Bob Barr in 1999. Back then, Flynt’s ire had been stoked by the right-wing’s relentless and sanctimonious impeachment campaign against President Bill Clinton. By 2007, right-wing shills were threatening a vicious campaign of sexual slander in a desperate attempt to hold onto power in ’08. With rumors already rampant that Palfrey’s phone records implicated high-ranking members of the Bush Administration and Congress, Moldea contacted the former madam. But he had competition. Barred from selling the records, Palfrey struck a deal with ABC News, securing an on-air interview in exchange for the phone records from 2002 through 2006. Palfrey revealed in a 20/20 interview on May 4, 2007, that her phone records listed the numbers of thousands of clients, including many prominent politicos. ABC didn’t reveal any major names. As it turned out, the news organization did not obtain Palfrey’s phone records for the time period in which David Vitter’s number appeared. But the lawmaker had to know that it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped.
A couple of months before Palfrey’s TV interview, a judge had imposed an indefinite injunction on the records. For Vitter, it was a temporary reprieve. But unbeknownst to Senator Hypocrite, Larry Flynt was about to turn up the heat. While investigator Moldea was negotiating with Palfrey and her attorney for access to the phone records, Flynt decided to use his checkbook to shake the Beltway escort tree. Forking over $106,000, he took out a full- page ad in the June 3 edition of the Washington Post. The ad, nearly identical to one Flynt had run in the D.C. paper in 1998, offered “up to $1 million for documented evidence of illicit sexual or intimate relations with a Congressperson, Senator or other prominent officeholder.” The ad provided an 800 number, and the HUSTLER hotline started logging dozens of tips a day. On July 6, a month after Flynt’s ad hit the streets, the restraining order on the phone records was lifted, and Palfrey released the treasure to a select group of journalists and researchers, including Moldea. The investigator immediately began the grueling task of punching the numbers into an online reversephone search engine.
Suspecting that in 2001 the newly elected Republicans in Washington had been giddy with Bush’s successful grab at power, Moldea zeroed in on the early half of that year. “After crunching hundreds of numbers,” he recalls, “I decided I’d take a break and set an arbitrary cutoff point at my birthday, which just happens to be February 27.” Moldea entered 202-548-4736, a number listed on that date, into the National Records Registry, and Vitter’s name came up. “I almost fell off my chair,” he recounts. After follow-up searches to confirm that he had the right David Vitter, Moldea called the rest of the investigative team at HUSTLER’s offices in Beverly Hills: Editorial Director Bruce David and this reporter, Research Director/Assistant Managing Editor Mark Johnson. The treasured list was now in the hands of several industrious journalists—the scoop wouldn’t hold for long. Even so, Larry Flynt made it clear that Vitter would have to be given a chance to respond before HUSTLER could go public with the info. “That’s the way we do things,” the publisher insisted. That weekend, Flynt and his investigative team consulted by phone on the best way to move forward. Moldea recommended that Adam Zagorin, a trustworthy Time magazine reporter, be enlisted to make the initial call, but with the assurance that Flynt would be named as the source of the information, regardless of how Vitter reacted. After conducting his own verification of HUSTLER’s facts, Zagorin agreed. Monday, July 9 was V-Day.
Flynt called a midday conference with the investigative team to coordinate the plan. Shortly before 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time, the Time reporter called Vitter’s Washington office and spoke to a staffer. Zagorin told him HUSTLER had learned that Vitter’s number was on the D.C. Madam’s phone list, then requested a comment from the senator. Seconds later, this reporter called Vitter’s office and informed a staffer: “We’re working on a story about Senator Vitter, and we’d like to get a comment from him regarding some information that we’ve obtained.” Neither of the calls were ever returned. That same day, Palfrey posted the phone records on her Web site. A few hours after HUSTLER’s phone call, Senator Vitter contacted the Associated Press in New Orleans in an obvious attempt to get ahead of the story. In a remarkably vague statement, he apologized for committing a “very serious sin in my past.” The senator then went into hiding for the rest of the week, leaving colleagues and constituents scratching their heads. But for anyone following the D.C. Madam scandal, it was obvious that Vitter knew the hookers had come home to roost. What no one outside the HUSTLER camp knew yet was that Flynt had struck again. The next day, HUSTLER’s investigative team notified the media of its role in Vitter’s outing.
On July 11, Flynt officially took credit for prodding Vitter’s confession. In a press conference aired live on CNN he stressed that he was not specifically out to get Louisiana or the Republicans, but hypocrisy. Regarding Vitter, Flynt announced, “I don’t want a man like that legislating for me, especially in the areas of morality.” Flynt pointed out that his coup was sweetened with irony. In 1999, Vitter had won the Congressional seat vacated by Bob Livingston. The House of Representatives’ Speaker-elect, Livingston resigned after HUSTLER confronted him with evidence of his own marital infidelity. Both Livingston and Vitter had clamored for Clinton’s resignation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As Flynt summed it up in his press conference, “Payback is a bitch!” Meanwhile, Vitter’s prolonged absence from the Hill began to generate speculation. Stories ranged from a flight out of the country to suicide watch in a New Orleans hospital. Then, a full week after the July 9 revelations, the country’s latest high-level hypocrite finally reemerged to state his case. But for GOPers hoping for honesty and eloquence, Vitter’s July 16 press conference was a pathetic disaster.
Blatantly hiding behind his wife and children, the disgraced lawmaker repeated his “I am responsible” mantra, peppering his statement with Christian buzzwords like “prayers” and “forgiveness.” Then, before trotting out his visibly bitter wife to whine about the media glare and deliver a hokey stand-by-your-man declaration, Vitter echoed his feeble protestations from five years earlier that the stories in the New Orleans press were the result of “longtime political enemies hoping to profit from the situation” and were “not true.” Vitter may deny his Big Easy liaisons, but he’s already proven himself to be a liar. His own constituents know that better than anyone else. By many accounts, Vitter was a regular client of services such as Palfrey’s. During his political career in Louisiana, he was allegedly a patron of the Canal Street brothel in New Orleans and of local escort services. In the wake of Vitter’s July 9 statement, former Canal Street madam Jeannette Maier told the press that Vitter had been a frequent visitor.
Back in the late 1990s the FBI had launched an investigation of the legendary brothel, allegedly for suspicion of drug-dealing and links to organized crime. Agents taped thousands of calls but came up empty. Federal prosecutors led by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten then charged Maier and her courtesans with prostitution conspiracy and sealed the phone records. According to people familiar with the matter, investigatory transcripts contain no hard evidence that Vitter was a Canal Street client. Maier alleges that Vitter stopped visiting once the investigation began. As it turns out, Letten was a longtime friend of David Vitter and apparently had Vitter to thank for his appointment as a federal prosecutor. Vitter’s closest call before being tripped up by Flynt came in 2002. Christopher Tidmore, an investigative reporter now running for the Louisiana State Legislature, broke the story of Vitter’s alleged 11-month affair with New Orleans prostitute Wendy Cortez. Cortez claimed outrage that Vitter touted himself as a “Family Values” candidate for his constituents while regularly betraying his own marital vows. Responding to Tidmore, Vitter launched a vicious smear campaign against the journalist.
After HUSTLER exposed Vitter, Tidmore expressed his appreciation to Flynt for finally being vindicated. With multiple allegations still unresolved, the Vitter saga is far from over; likewise the stories of Republican hypocrisy. As this country heads into a pivotal election year—and perhaps the last chance to reclaim the nation’s integrity and freedom—voters will no doubt be faced with yet more irrefutable evidence that GOP mantras of “Family Values” cannot and should not be trusted. For conservatives, Vitter’s name is already synonymous with shame and embarrassment. But judging by the wave of gratification flowing into Flynt headquarters, the scandal signals a turning of the tide for Americans weary of lies and hypocrisy.
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