Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why Just Her, by Montgomery Blair Sibley (review)

A s anyone can imagine, it’s difficult reviewing a book about an event that one was a part of, and especially one in which the main protagonist has died, but fellow participant and former counsel Montgomery Blair Sibley’s book offers a certain degree of closure in the matter of one Deborah Jeane Palfrey (dubbed the “DC Madam” by the mainstream press). Finding a coherent narrative in this tangled-mess was a difficult task, as I can attest to it myself. Palfrey was an enigmatic figure on the national stage from roughly late March 2007 until her untimely death by suicide on May 1, 2008, less than a month after she was found guilty of racketeering charges related to running a prostitution ring in the Washington D.C area from her Vallejo home. This isn’t to say that Sibley’s book is the final word (no book can be that) on the subject, but it’s a good start. There are questions to this story that will never be answered, and not merely because Jeane is no longer with us.
Sibley was very close indeed to the flames and brings us all (myself included) a viable and constructive narrative of what he witnessed and his interpretation of it as the longest serving counsel to Deborah Jeane Palfrey, now forever branded by a puritan media as the “DC Madam.” A great deal has been written about Montgomery Blair Sibley’s behavior inside and outside of the DC Madam scandal and the courts, and while I’ve only corresponded with him via email and spoken with him on the phone a few times, I’ve never felt truly misled by him outside of an attorney’s duties to a defendant or that his behavior or tone were bizarre.
I became a part of this narrative from the first week of June 2007 until very shortly before Palfrey’s death, and was brought into it by the main protagonist herself. Like many historical events, most participants involved only experienced a small-part of the story; but for a few, there was more than just a sliver and they bore witness to more of an event than any other single player. Sibley is the latter. The fact of the matter is: Montgomery Blair Sibley was there from almost the very beginning from October 2006, shortly after Palfrey’s home was raided by USPS inspectors and investigators from the Treasury Department, until very close to the bitter end. To be sure, Palfrey was guilty-as-charged, and whether anyone likes it or not, Mr. Sibley has seized the narrative de facto by being the first to document it in book form. Only time will tell us how solid his version of events is, as with any historical accounting.
Many of Sibley’s detractors in the press and the legal profession are in for a bit of a surprise (outside of their own prejudices, possibly earned by Sibley and his late client for various reasons). Yet, by all appearances, this is a solid primary historical document containing what Sibley feels he experienced representing Palfrey; what the information in his possession means; and what the case itself means within our general and political culture. If he’s wrong anywhere in his version of the narrative, it’s likely that any mistakes or omissions were accidental or simply beyond Sibley’s control and were unintentional. It should be noted here that many materials related to the legal proceedings are still under seal, if not classified under national security statutes. Also worth noting is that this isn’t just about Palfrey, but about the author himself.
To be sure, there is an advantage that comes out of proximity, and the Sibley’s self-deprecation is both refreshing and forthcoming in ways that go well beyond most “what happened” books of this type.
From the point-of-view of this participant, he seems to “get” the hypocrisy of the charges leveled against Palfrey within a very large judicial context, and I applaud him for it. The DC Madam’s former legal counselor notes ably how little justice is to be had for just about any criminal defendant at the federal level and places Palfrey appropriately within that very context in fairly graphic detail. As he accurately states in the text, over 90% of federal criminal defendants plea out, which should tell you something about the prospects for victory for nearly anyone accused of violating federal statutes.
But Sibley had bigger problems than simply taking on the District of Columbia’s prosecution team under the Bush/Gonzalez interim-appointed U.S. Attorney, Jeffrey A. Taylor, an eleventh hour appointment at that. The “lawyer with a good name” had a client who was part of that 10% that would never, under any circumstances, capitulate to a plea deal.
Palfrey told this writer in our first telephone conversation in early June 2007 of two very good plea deals (reported in much less detail by ABC in their May 20/20 special featuring Palfrey for scant few minutes):
…I would not take their offers. …The best offer I think we had was about a year total of jail time—about maybe half of that in a halfway house, about half of that in a prison…maybe four months in a halfway house, maybe four months in a prison. They would take 2/3d’s of my—uh—life savings. That was the best offer possible. I basically told them to go screw themselves….to go to hell. Now, when that last offer came down, that’s when they indicted me. [i]
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you (even Sibley, though we might disagree on this and several other points) that those were extremely generous plea deals, better than the average. What was she thinking? What else? She was thinking about the money—her overall assets--and the fact that she was going back to jail, and that’s about it.
This writer can attest to Palfrey having a tendency towards making irrational demands of others (I rejected my share of them) and acting in ways that could only have hurt her. In other words, it’s my humble opinion that she was disturbed and that it was a long-term condition of some sort that was exacerbated by her legal ordeal. When it began, I cannot say, but it appears to have been present as early as 1991-1992 in the aftermath of her first conviction and incarceration. There is little reason to think that either the Court or the prosecution were unaware of this fact at any stage in the proceedings. This begs-the-question as to why there was no intervention to assess whether the defendant was a threat to herself.
Why Just Her is generally silent on this issue for what we can assume are very serious legal reasons of procedure, and likely more.
The origins for Palfrey’s irrational behavior have been widely speculated on. Taking the overall picture that Sibley paints of the DC Madam’s state of mind during the legal proceedings for what they are and were, it’s hard not to conclude that the defendant Deborah Jeane Palfrey was not merely unhinged by the charges against her, but that she had ongoing mental problems that were probably with her for the entirety of her short life. This jibes perfectly with my contact with her, which was generally through a few telephone calls and a very long correspondence via-email. Sibley reveals some of this mental state to us through some rather extraordinary emails between others (including myself) and Palfrey, court filings, transcripts, anecdotes, and so on. He astutely notes from Palfrey’s autopsy report that she had high levels of Zolpidem in her bloodstream and corroborates this himself that he believes she was abusing it during her legal battle.
From the toxicological report done for the Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory:
2483B Zolpidem, Blood…
Analysis by Gas Chromatography (GC)
Synonym(s): Ambien®
Peak plasma concentration following single oral 5 and 10 mg doses: 29 – 113 ng/mL (mean = 59 ng/mL) and 58 – 272 ng/mL (mean 121 ng/mL), respectively occurring at a mean time of 1.6 hours [before death]. [ii]
Sibley accurately states in his account that Palfrey took an overdose of generic Ambien roughly two hours before her death, so he’s not shaping the facts and his reading of this and other specific public documents appear to be on solid ground.
As a layman, I cannot comment to his interpretation of the laws and statutes invoked in Palfrey’s case. That’s what attorneys and judges are for. All that being said, I don’t think he was able to discuss the theme of suicide very expansively in Why Just Her because of court procedures regarding sealed documents as well as the Palfrey Estate’s invoking of attorney-client privilege over the last year. Some of these issues will probably be resolved before the end of 2009 (or not), but Sibley does drop a few bombshells:
Blanche subsequently told me that after writing the three notes on April 25, 2008, and taking an unknown quantity of [Z]olpidem, Jeane was unconscious for 30 hours. Upon waking up, she drove her [Jeane] to Blanche’s mobile home in Tarpon Springs, Florida. …Though conspiracy theories quickly populated the internet, the hard evidence was simply too overwhelming to permit any conclusion other than Jeane had taken her own life. [iii]
As evinced by the number of attorney firings (not including the then-recent U.S. Attorney firing scandal that brought Jeffrey A. Taylor into the equation) by Palfrey over the course of events, Montgomery Blair Sibley and the rest of her representation had their hands full. I don’t expect that either A.J. Kramer or Preston Burton will be writing their accounts anytime soon--if ever--and their reasons probably run-the-gamut. I can relate. They all had a nightmare client on their hands, possibly the worst kind one could represent in a criminal/civil case, and Sibley has represented some real “doosie” clients like Obama accuser Larry Sinclair in the aftermath, so it’s saying something. Sinclair was probably like a vacation compared to Jeane.
Palfrey was that impossible client who lied most of the time and kept her cards close-to-the-vest, as this book documents throughout, and therefore, there can never truly be a full portrait of who she was and what she did running Pamela Martin & Associates, generally unmolested for thirteen years within the greater Washington D.C. area. In many ways, she will remain an enigma. Such are the obstacles to all historical portraits, even when they’re coming from those who had a lot of contact with the subject, but Sibley does an exceptional job in reconstructing the timeline as well as his and Palfrey’s general state of mind over the course of her prolonged legal proceedings. People accused of criminal acts have their secrets and their reasons for harboring them, and Palfrey was no exception to this tendency.
Like everyone in this life, Palfrey took some of her secrets to the grave. But there are a few glaring mysteries including how much money she actually made over the years which contradict her and the government’s assertions, and there is smoke. For example, Sibley notes a very serious problem in the cross-examination by AUSA for the prosecution, Daniel Butler, at trial regarding the testimony of IRS agent Troy Burrus. Statements were made that pulled-back the veil, and the only explanation this writer can find is incredible incompetence. In short, they accidentally charged Palfrey with under-reporting her income at trial rather than beforehand. This is a major procedural error in any criminal trial.
But no worries, the presiding judge had their back in the end. A reasonable outcome would have been a mistrial, but Judge Robertson was no Judge Kessler (who was replaced in a predawn raid without explanation), and anything but reasonable. This exchange occurred during Palfrey’s trial on April 9, 2008:
…22 Q. Does Ms. Palfrey's return show gross receipts or net
23 receipts?
24 A. It shows gross receipts.
25 Q. And where does it show that?
1 A. On line one, under part one for the income, it shows the
2 gross receipts.
3 Q. And what is gross receipts, just to make sure?
4 A. Gross receipts in this instance would be all the income that
5 was received by the business during that year.
6 Q. So that would include Ms. Palfrey as well as her employees.
7 Is that correct?
8 A. Actually, it should include the monies that she actually
9 received, that was sent to her.
10 Q. And did you compare the tax returns to the bank records for
11 Ms. Palfrey?
12 A. Yes.
13 Q. And what did that show?
14 A. The comparison of the bank records for this year, 2002, show
15 that there was a greater amount of gross receipts than was
16 reported on this line.
17 MR. BURTON: Can we approach, Your Honor?
18 THE COURT: Yes.
20 MR. BURTON [Palfrey’s criminal counsel at trial]: I don't know where this is going.
21 MR. BUTLER: I'm not going to any tax discrepancy, or
22 anything to that effect.
23 THE COURT [Former FISA Judge James Robertson who resigned from the Court in December 2005 when the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program was exposed]: You just saddled her with basically what is
24 false reporting.
25 MR. BUTLER: Well, I don't think it's gone that far.
1 yet, Your Honor. I'm not going any further with this line of
2 inquiry.
3 THE COURT: Well, now you've put the defense in the
4 position where they have to respond to this. How are they going
5 to do that?
6 MR. BUTLER: Well, Your Honor, that was not the intent
7 of my question, but I appreciate what the Court is saying.
8 THE COURT: What was the intent of the question?
9 MR. BUTLER: My intent of the question, Your Honor, was
10 directed at the gross receipts that were deposited into this and
11 comparing it with the bank records that we have. It was a
12 poorly phrased question. That's all I can say about it. I
13 don't know anything more than that.
14 THE COURT: Well, where are you going next?
15 MR. BUTLER: Your Honor, I'm going next with -- can I
16 just have a moment, Your Honor?
17 Your Honor, there's another chart in terms of -- I just
18 need to grab it, just to answer the question more explicitly, if
19 I can have a moment.
20 THE COURT: How much more do you have with this guy?
21 MR. BUTLER: Not very much at all, Your Honor.
22 MS. CONNELLY: I think there's a bunch more documents.
23 MR. BUTLER: Well, there's other documents we need to
24 admit through him, yes.
25 THE COURT: Can he come back in the morning? [iv.]
Palfrey’s final criminal counsel merely went through the motions, and weakly called for a mistrial, which Robertson rejected immediately. Burton didn’t press the issue, which was typical of this defense strategy during the trial. It appears that his defense wasn’t especially zealous. Yet, critics of Sibley would be hard-pressed in saying he didn’t represent Palfrey zealously enough--if anything it might have bordered on the overzealous (whatever that means), and I believe he did his best to save her from herself, including attempts to bring her suicidal behavior to the attention of the Court, and possibly even that of the prosecution.
But, again, I believe that he and they are not legally able to discuss or write about such things for procedural reasons.
This is the first place to start for the average person in beginning to understand a very convoluted and chimerical scandal that was inherently political. It is an honest effort at understanding what happened from someone who was intimately involved in it and it offers about as sincere a perspective as you’re going to get from someone in such a position. The press’s coverage of this event was superficial, lacking in substance, and even went so far as to intentionally obscure very important issues, never mind the real ones at hand in it. In other words, they missed the real stories, the core issues. That’s not very hard to believe given the state of investigative journalism these days.
That the prosecution was engaged in gross misbehavior is a given. That the Court failed to administer reasonable due process at trial is open to interpretation, but why then was Judge Kessler so abruptly removed and replaced by former FISA court Judge James Robertson if there really were no national security issues to the case? They’re not telling, but Montgomery Blair Sibley is, and as much as he’s allowed to under the law. That speaks volumes, and resoundingly.

[i] Phone conversation with the author, June 10, 2007.
[ii] “Toxicology Report,” NMS Labs, Work order 08165556, Palfrey, Deborah Jeane, May 31, 2008.
[iii] Sibley, Montgomery Blair, Why Just Her. (Full Court Press, 2009) P.581.
[iv] United States v. Deborah Palfrey, “TRANSCRIPT OF TRIAL RECORD VOLUME 3,” “Criminal No. 07-0046,” April 9, 2008.

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