In the May issue, I asked, “Do We Want a Federal Police Force?” (Views).  I pointed out that Congress is passing too many laws that duplicate traditional state criminal laws.  The problem with this redundancy is that federal enforcement, like that at Waco and Ruby Ridge, is usually irresponsible.

The latest example of this is the “D.C. Madam” case.

Everyone should agree that stamping out prostitution in our nation’s capital is a task so daunting that Savonarola—the 15th century Dominican friar who tried to clean up Florence—would probably pass it by.  Then why, on March 1, 2007, did the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia indict Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who quickly became known as the “D.C. Madam”?  The indictment charged that she had employed more than 100 women from 1993 to 2006, “for the purpose of engaging in prostitution activity with male clients, including sexual intercourse and oral sex in exchange for money.”  The indictment threw in money-laundering and racketeering, but those charges rested on the illegality of prostitution.

In his closing argument, Daniel Butler, the federal prosecutor, asked the jury, “When a man agrees to pay $250 for 90 minutes with a woman, what do most men expect in that time?  In that context, it’s pretty clear most men want sex.”  No doubt they do, whether there’s $250 involved or not; but if local law enforcement doesn’t think the case worth prosecuting, why does the federal government bother?  Savonarola thought his Bonfire of the Vanities would morally cleanse Florence.  Were the federal prosecutors trying to do that for Washington, D.C.?

In April 2008, the U.S. attorney put 13 women on the stand who had worked for the madam ten years before when they were in their early 20’s.  By the time of the trial, they were in their early 30’s with husbands, children, and careers.  The federal prosecutors compelled them to testify—in graphic detail—under grants of immunity, which prevented them from remaining silent under the Fifth amendment.  Said one woman, a commander in the Navy and single mother of three children, “I needed the money, yes I did.”  She worked for the madam for six months.  She was so nervous when testifying that the federal district court judge tried to reassure her: “Take two deep breaths and relax.  Everything’s going to be okay.”  Not exactly.  Her testimony ended what the New York Times called the career of “an otherwise exemplary officer.”  The trial, the Times noted, had been expected to embarrass influential clients, but instead had “been remarkable for the public humiliation of an accomplished but financially desperate Navy Officer who was paid $130 a 90-minute session.”

The Washington Post reported: “The jurors have watched a procession of scared, mortified ex-prostitutes (13 so far) reluctantly take the witness stand, forced to reveal their secret former lives in intermittently graphic detail—a past each clearly hoped was buried forever.  Most testified that they grew weary of the business in less than a year and quit.”

The D.C. Madam case ended on May 2, when Palfrey—facing a likely four to six years in prison—hanged herself in a shed while awaiting sentencing.  That was the second suicide resulting from the case; in 2006, a University of Maryland professor who had worked for the madam committed suicide after the police arrested her.  The federal prosecutors forced 13 women to reveal in their testimony exactly what services they provided clients.  Before the trial ended, the feds had littered the landscape with destroyed lives—and had done it as carelessly as boys swat flies.

Back when the madam was indicted, the D.C. Yellow Pages listed hundreds of “escort” services.  What was special about the D.C. Madam’s operation to attract federal interest?  Nothing, apparently.  Was the U.S. attorney simply showboating to sully some high-profile names?  Probably, but all he picked up was a Republican senator from Louisiana and a deputy secretary of state.

The D.C. Madam’s business, unlike the Emperor Club VIP that Eliot Spitzer patronized, was relentlessly middle class.  The Emperor Club’s glittering client list included governors and British nobility.  Eliot Spitzer paid $4,300 for a New York City girl to travel to Room 871 at the Mayflower Hotel.  Spitzer is still waiting to see which way the U.S. attorney’s untrammeled discretion will fall in his case.  The D.C. Madam’s prices were modest—$250 to $300 for 90 minutes, split 50/50 with the girls.  The IRS had no kick because, although a cash business, the madam filed 1099’s for the girls as independent contractors.  She advertised in the D.C. Yellow Pages.  She recruited the women by advertising in the University of Maryland student newspaper.  During the 13 years of the indictment, the madam’s average income was under $160,000 per year.

Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”  Local government can easily take care of the people’s morals.  They are closest to them and more likely to know what the people want.  If California wants to permit some marijuana use or Oregon wants to experiment with assisted suicide, why should that bother anyone in Texas?  If the District of Columbia wants to tolerate prostitution, why should that upset the federal government?

The Founding Fathers believed ordinary crimes should be handled by the states so local citizens could decide what to make criminal and, with their votes, hold law-enforcement officials accountable for how the laws were enforced.  No local government in America would have gone forward with the D.C. Madam case—it was expensive and pointless.  The federal police force, on the other hand, is rich and unaccountable.  Federal officials were as careless at Waco and Ruby Ridge as they were in the D.C. Madam case, with the same devastating results.  They should keep in mind that, when the people of Florence had enough of Savonarola, they hanged and burned him.