I routinely wake between 4:30 and 5 a.m. without the benefit of an alarm clock, and on that particular morning I awoke around 5. I’m self-employed and my businesses are flourishing, so I have the luxury of waking whenever I decide, but nearly eight years of incarceration, courtesy of the federal government, have hardwired me to have an early-to-bed and early-to-rise constitution. I’ve never been accused of indolence, even though the government and media have branded me as a criminal mastermind of sorts.
After I climbed out of bed, I imbibed a mug of green tea, which gave me a slight sense of invigoration. I flicked on the basement light and bounced down the stairs. As I surveyed the basement’s treadmill, StairMaster, elliptical, and Nautilus, I caught a glimpse of myself in the basement’s mirrored walls. Somnolence covered my face like a wilted mask, and incorrigible tufts of blond hair had yet to be tamed by a shower and a brush. I reached for the remote, resting on the treadmill, and I flicked on the television that was mounted on the wall.
I gazed upward at CNN as I started trotting on the treadmill. CNN and the treadmill have been a morning ritual I’ve cultivated since my previous stint in prison.
I had been on the treadmill for about 10 minutes, listlessly peering upwards at the television, when the expression “D.C. Madam” sliced through the air. The words jolted me as if they were fired from a stun gun, and I felt momentary paralysis. I was nearly hurled from the treadmill, but I had the wherewithal to leap off the track while I became transfixed on the television.
CNN was reporting on the case of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who ran a Washington, D.C.-based escort service. The media had branded her as the D.C. madam. CNN flashed a picture of Ms. Palfrey: She had shoulder length brunette hair, benign bronze eyes, and a porcelain complexion. She had the appearance of a stylish librarian or high school English teacher, even though the government accused her of being a “racketeer.”
The media had branded me a “D.C. madam” years before Deborah Jeane Palfrey was given that distinction. Although the media’s reportage on me has been distorted and derisive, it’s indeed accurate that at the sprite age of 29 I was the proprietor of the largest gay escort service in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post’s skewed coverage of me was due to the fact that the newspaper — by either commission or omission — took its cue from the federal government, which manufactured a labyrinth of lies about my circumstances.
I’m uncertain if Ms. Palfrey witnessed the blackmailing of politicians first-hand, but I was certainly privy to the blackmailing of politicians and sundry powerbrokers. If the Department of Justice, the Secret Service, and The Washington Post had not been fixated on covering up the facts and individuals enmeshed in my case, Americans would have learned the unsavory truth that blackmail is endemic to their political system.
The sexual escapades of the D.C. elite are vastly different than the infidelities of the average citizen—thus their susceptibility to blackmail. Before Ms. Palfrey’s trial, she imparted flurries of sound bites to the media intimating that she was the custodian of too many secrets, and the government would be unlocking a Pandora’s Box if it prosecuted her.
“I am sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, you know, four to eight years here, because I’m shy about bringing in the deputy secretary of whatever,” Palfrey told ABC. “Not for a second. I’ll bring every last one of them in if necessary.”
The federal government subjected both Ms. Palfrey and me to crucible that was designed to ensure our silence—or ultimately crush us. “They just destroy you on every level—financially, emotionally, psychologically,” Ms. Palfrey reportedly said of federal prosecutors. In the case of Ms. Palfrey, the U.S. Attorney for the District of D.C. smacked her with a 14-count RICO indictment that included money laundering, racketeering, and using the mail for illegal purposes in connection with a prostitution ring, and she was facing a bewildering 55 years behind bars.
RICO is an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and it was originally designed to dismantle the Mafia, as RICO allows for mob bosses to be tried for crimes that were sanctioned on their behalf. Ms. Palfrey was merely running an escort service, so it seems that the RICO Act was prosecutorial overkill in her circumstances—unless, of course, prosecutors felt it was imperative to leverage her silence.
I, too, was merely running an escort service, but the U.S. Attorney for the District of D.C. walloped me with a 43-count RICO indictment. I was potentially staring at 295 years behind bars! At the outset of my case, my attorney, Greta Van Susteren, seemed very committed to a vigorous defense on my behalf. She filed an 11-page motion to mandate the release of my clientele list that the government had previously seized from me. Ms. Van Susteren argued that the names of my patrons should be released, because, if the
But the Assistant U.S. Attorney for D.C. vehemently contested Ms. Van Susteren’s motion with a remarkably disingenuous argument: He contended that the names of my patrons shouldn’t be made public, because the U.S. Attorney’s office feared the “intimidation of government witnesses due to the embarrassing nature of the case.”
At left: Henry Vinson
My trial judge sided with the prosecution and barred the public disclosure of my clientele. After my trial judge acquiesced to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Ms. Van Susteren started to change her tune, and she urged me to take the government’s plea bargain.
By then, my family and I had been subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, and I faced life in prison. At Ms. Van Susteren’s behest, I accepted the government’s plea bargain, and I was sentenced to 63 months in federal prison. The Feds also included a caveat that wasn’t overtly stated in my plea agreement: My five-year sentence was based on the contingency that I not divulge a word about the particulars of my case to the media. After I was gagged and banished to a federal prison, I’ve been told that the government sealed, in perpetuity, a myriad of documents in my case. I’m aware of at least three individuals who have attempted to unseal my documentation, but the government has successfully rebuffed each of them.
HENRY VINSON is a Cincinnati-based entrepreneur. Learn more about his memoir, Confessions of a D.C. Madam, on Vinson's blog. Excerpt from Confessions of a D.C. Madam: The Politics of Sex, Lies, and Blackmail (Trine Day).