D.C. Madam Bets on Valley Firm

From Red Herring

on 24 August 2007, 17:52

The so-called “D.C. Madam” may yet get the last laugh.

Accused of running a high-priced prostitution ring that catered to the rich and powerful in Washington, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, dubbed the “D.C. Madam,” earlier this year threatened to name names. But political elites breathed a sigh of relief when a television reporter reviewed a list of her clients and, save for a couple of exceptions, declared the names to be of little interest.

Now the woman at the center of Washington’s most titillating scandal in years is hoping to bolster her defense by hiring a small Silicon Valley search and data analysis company that she hopes will be able to mine a treasure trove of phone records, Congressional papers and other documents to draw up a much longer list of her clients.

That could put Cataphora, a relatively unknown Redwood City, California-based company, at the center of one of the most closely-watched scandals in Washington in recent memory.

“It could be the cornerstone of our defense,” Ms. Palfrey’s attorney, Montgomery Blair Sibley, said of Cataphora’s work.

Privately-held Cataphora will analyze thousands of pages of Ms. Palfrey’s old telephone records—which do not have names attached to them—to names and numbers subpoenaed from telephone companies. Ms. Palfrey has said she knew most of her customers by first names or aliases only. And Mr. Sibley said her telephone records are the only evidence she has not yet destroyed.

Ms. Palfrey was charged in March with running a prostitution ring but she claims that her firm, Pamela Martin and Associates, was a legitimate escort service that catered to the erotic fantasies of up to 15,000 customers—but did not provide sexual services. Mr. Sibley said that without new names provided by Cataphora’s analysis, it could be difficult to call witnesses to support his client’s position.

“This is the best way (for me) to put people on the stand to say, ‘I was just getting a massage or sniffing underwear’ or whatever,” he said.

Word of Ms. Palfrey’s arrest sparked rampant speculation that scores of well-known public figures would appear on her client list. She gave a portion of her phone numbers—from 2002 to 2006—to ABC News earlier this year, outing deputy secretary of state Randall Tobias, former Clinton administration official Dick Morris, and Louisiana senator David Vitter, who in July apologized for using the service—for “massages.”

ABC News declined to release other names because it said they were of little news value. But Cataphora’s technology could soon draw up a list of clients dating back 13 years, particularly if the company can match phone records with other data, such as politicians’ calendars or official House or Senate records.

“I’m sure they’re going to come up with ways to use the information,” said Mr. Sibley. “If there’s a high frequency of use when Congress is in session, I have reasonable grounds to subpoena Congressmen.”

Cataphora has a long track record of tracking individuals. The company’s “C-Evidence” software was designed to scour emails, calendar schedules, phone records, expense reports, and other documents to analyze—and flag, if appropriate—individuals’ communications, actions or behavioral patterns.

“We know most people are creatures of habit,” said Elizabeth Charnock, Cataphora CEO.

The software can “read” emotional context within emails to identify people’s behavior and it can also generate graphics that visually illustrate lines of communication among individuals, making it difficult for people to adopt the plausible deniability defense.

“This is the way of the future because we don’t have persons talking on the street corner,” Mr. Sibley said. “We have volumes of information flying in the ether and unless you can make sense of it, you can’t make a sustained case.”

Cataphora is typically contracted by large companies—or their law firms—that are being sued, subpoenaed, or under criminal investigation. These clients don’t want to be identified, meaning that Cataphora usually operates behind the scenes. But its involvement with the D.C. Madam could now put Cataphora in the national spotlight.

Cataphora’s emergence also comes at a time of growing complaints over the manner in which new technologies—whether illegal snooping software, government data collection programs or corporate advertising platforms—are eroding personal privacy.

It is not yet clear whether Cataphora’s software will detonate new political bombshells in the capital. More certain is that those who get caught up in Cataphora’s technological trap will not be everyday web surfers, but Washington elites.

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