U.S. Sen. David Vitter's "news conference" last week was yet another example of Louisiana's junior senator attempting to manipulate (read: control) media coverage of his involvement in the "D.C. Madam" scandal and his alleged association with prostitutes in New Orleans. Those who know Vitter can attest to his enviable political skills, which include virtuosity at spin control. Unfortunately for Vitter, his desire to manage news cycles with regard to the unfolding scandal resembles a case of someone's reach exceeding his grasp. The only way the press will back off -- the only way the press should back off -- this story is if Vitter faces the media and answers all questions fully and forthrightly.
We say this not to defend the media's hunger for a good story, but rather because Vitter's constituents deserve to know the whole story of his alleged involvement with prostitutes in Washington and in New Orleans. This is not a story about a husband who broke his marriage vows. If it were, we would gladly defend Vitter's right to privacy. (In 1999, we begged then-Congressman Bob Livingston not to resign after admitting adultery.) The Vitter scandal, sadly, arises out of an ongoing federal criminal investigation. Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the alleged D.C. Madam, stands accused of federal racketeering charges, which trigger enhanced penalties upon conviction. According to prosecutors, Palfrey's alleged "criminal enterprise" under the RICO statute was an interstate prostitution ring. Prostitution is a misdemeanor offense in Louisiana and Washington, as is solicitation for prostitution -- the "john's" crime of paying for sex. Palfrey's phone records show that Vitter's Washington number appears on her call list at least five times between October 1999 and February 2001. The senator has admitted obliquely to "past sin" in reference to Palfrey's operation, which is tantamount to admitting that he broke the law. That's what this story is about, and that's why the press should never stop hounding Vitter about it.
Vitter's record of loudly championing "family values" makes him an easy target for Democrats and other critics of social conservatism. Indeed, his hypocrisy is palpable. But hypocrisy is nothing new in politics. Breaking the law and then thumbing your nose at the press and public is another matter. Vitter has a moral and political obligation -- by his own standards -- to come clean with his constituents and his Senate colleagues.
By shamelessly refusing to answer for his transgressions while Palfrey faces decades in jail for the same transactions, Vitter is placing himself above the law. Palfrey's attorneys, however, plan to subpoena Vitter to testify at her trial. He then will have to answer questions under oath -- unless he thinks he is beyond the reach of a federal subpoena. Ironically, Republican conservatives like Vitter preached that then-President Bill Clinton was subject to subpoena in a civil lawsuit alleging sexual harassment a decade ago. The courts agreed. Clearly, Vitter cannot responsibly claim that he is immune from testifying in a federal criminal case. The question then becomes one of what he will admit once under oath. His constituents should not have to wait that long for the truth.
At a minimum, Vitter should answer the following questions, which he has dodged by stiff-arming the press at every turn since the story broke:
• When did Vitter's use of alleged prostitutes associated with Palfrey's company begin, and when did it end?
• How many times did he use the "services" of Palfrey's company?
• Who paid for the call girls' visits? Specifically, did any lobbyist ever pay for the senator's use of prostitutes?
• Did Vitter have any relationships with prostitutes in Louisiana, specifically a woman sometimes known as Wendy Cortez? If so, when did that relationship start and when did it end -- and why did he lie about it during his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate?
At last week's "news conference," the senator's wife Wendy chastised the media for hounding her family during their time of crisis. She made an excellent point, but her blame was misplaced. The media would not have had to stake out the Vitter family home if David Vitter had not chosen to hide from the press, the public and his constituents. Even at the news conference, Vitter effectively hid behind his wife, who at least showed the moral courage of her Christian convictions by forgiving him. Voters would like the same chance -- but first, the senator must admit, explain and atone for his sins. Ironically, as a former supervisor in the Orleans Parish DA's office, Wendy Vitter oversaw cases against prostitutes and their customers. She well knows the public policy behind punishing both sides of the prostitution transaction and that both parties are committing a crime. Our hearts go out to her and her children at this time, but, again, it's her husband, not the media, who brought this crisis upon the Vitter family. He can bring closure to this ordeal, but only if he comes clean.
As a newspaper exercising America's precious First Amendment right, we strive to treat all politicians the same when they break the rules. We have lambasted Democrats as well as Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives when they stray. We have learned to love and trust the system a lot more than those who are charged with serving it. The system now demands that David Vitter answer all questions about his role in this sordid affair fully and forthrightly.