WASHINGTON – When questioned about his links to a Washington escort service, Sen. David Vitter has chosen his words carefully. He apologized for a "very serious sin in my past," but said the details were best left between God and his family.
Now, the woman accused of running a high-end prostitution ring wants the Louisiana Republican to dish the salacious details in court.
A lawyer for indicted escort Deborah Palfrey has subpoenaed the first-term senator to testify at a hearing this month. Attorney Montgomery Blair Sibley said he'll ask Vitter pointedly, "As a client, did you engage in illegal sex acts?"
In a city where the preferred method of apologizing is a prepared statement and where follow-up questions are often ducked, Sibley is promising to force some answers. Unlike Vitter's news conference on the matter, at which he took no questions, the witness box can be an unscripted, on-the-record, under-oath political nightmare.
That's why Sibley expects Vitter to fight the subpoena.
"I wouldn't want my client up there, answering the questions I'm going to ask him," Sibley said.
Vitter's attorney, Henry W. Asbill, would not discuss the case or say whether he planned to challenge the subpoena. He could argue that Vitter's testimony is irrelevant to the hearing. He could also argue that the senator cannot testify without risking incriminating himself.
Republican consultant Terry Holt said Vitter has handled the scandal deftly so far.
When confronted by Hustler magazine in July with the fact that his number showed up in Palfrey's phone records, Vitter quickly issued a statement apologizing to his family and voters. Then, with his wife at his side, he apologized again and said he was moving on.
Since then, he has deflected questions about Palfrey. He has also denied unrelated claims by a Louisiana escort who says she had a sexual relationship with him in 1999. Asked follow-up questions, Vitter's office has said the senator is focused on congressional business.
If forced to testify, Vitter should do his best to "demonstrate true contrition," Holt said.
"You can survive any political situation if you conduct yourself with dignity," Holt said. "Preserving your dignity, while extremely difficult in this situation, is still possible."
Charlie Black, a Republican strategist and former Republican National Committee spokesman, said Vitter must decide whether it's worth trying to quash the subpoena.
"I might go ahead and do it rather than having a protracted fight over whether he'll have to do it," Black said.
If Vitter takes the stand, Black said, the key will be to offer as little new information — and fodder for critics — as possible.
A federal judge scheduled the Nov. 28 hearing to consider allowing Palfrey to continue fighting a civil lawsuit while her criminal case is ongoing. The civil case underscores her defense. Palfrey says she provided a fantasy service, not a sexual one. Any women who had sex for money were what Sibley calls "rogue escorts" who violated their employment contract.
Palfrey is suing one of the escorts for breach of contract. If Vitter testifies he had sex with one of the escorts for money, Sibley argues, the senator will bolster their case that the escort contract was violated and the civil case should go forward.
The Justice Department argues Palfrey is using the lawsuit to question and intimidate witnesses in the criminal case.
Also on Palfrey's witness list is 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 said he didn't know whether he would testify at the hearing and would not discuss what he called "outrageous allegations."