WASHINGTON — A federal judge spared Sen. David Vitter an embarrassing appearance on the witness stand in a prostitution case when she abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled for next week.
The Louisiana Republican was under subpoena to testify about his ties to a Washington escort service. Deborah Palfrey, the woman accused of running a prostitution ring, had sought to question Vitter about whether he paid for sex.
But U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler canceled the hearing Wednesday, saying it served no purpose in the criminal case. It was Kessler who originally set the hearing but, after seeing Palfrey's witness list, the judge said she was convinced Palfrey was just trying to game the judicial system.
Vitter has acknowledged being involved with the escort service, Pamela Martin and Associates. But after issuing brief statements and apologizing for "a very serious sin," he has ducked follow-up questions. On the witness stand, he would not have had that luxury.
Neither Vitter's attorney nor his Senate spokesman immediately returned messages seeking comment. Palfrey's attorney said he had not read the judge's order and had no comment.
While Kessler's ruling offers Vitter a public relations reprieve, it was hardly a politically tinged ruling. An appointee of President Clinton, Kessler has rankled the Bush administration in rulings over Guantanamo Bay detainees, faith-based initiatives and whether it can keep documents secret. Vitter, a first-term senator who also served in the House, is a reliable conservative vote on Capitol Hill.
The Nov. 28 hearing was merely a tangent to Palfrey's prosecution, but Vitter's testimony would have drawn a crowd. With Vitter on the stand, attorney Montgomery Blair Sibley said he would ask, "As a client, did you engage in illegal sex acts?"
It's a novel strategy, asking someone to say they paid for sex to help bolster a prostitution case. But Palfrey says she provided a fantasy service, not a sexual one, and anyone who sold sex was a "rogue escort" who violated her employment contract.
Palfrey is suing one of the escorts for breach of contract. Kessler put that case on hold while the criminal case played out, a decision the judge was going to reconsider at next week's hearing. Had Vitter confirmed he paid for sex, Palfrey said, it would have bolstered her argument that the escort violated her contract and could be sued.
Had the case been allowed to go forward, Palfrey could have questioned witnesses outside the criminal defense process, giving her an advantage at trial. Prosecutors said it was a way for her to intimidate witnesses and generate publicity.
Also on Palfrey's witness list was Harlan K. Ullman, a national security expert and military strategist known for developing the "shock and awe" warfare strategy. Palfrey has said Ullman was a regular client. Ullman has not commented on what he called "outrageous allegations."
"Obviously, this witness list demonstrates that defendant has no intention of adhering to the specific limited purpose for which the hearing was set," Kessler wrote.