New Orleans abuzz with Canal Street brothel case
NEW ORLEANS, La., June 16 When the noon hour chimes in the St. Louis Cathedral clock tower on Jackson Square every Friday, the court house shuts down, law offices close, the chefs at Galatoire's and the bartenders at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street get busy. The ladies of the night are just waking up, starting to make appointments.
Between Easter and Labor Day, lawyers in sear sucker suits are as common as tourists in kaki shorts and T-shirts. When they belly up to the Old Absinthe House bar side by side, the question on their minds is entirely different.
The tourists can't help wondering if prostitution and brothels are as common as the city's reputation, a reputation of unobstructed fun and vice, a reputation with secrets as dark as the muddy Mississippi River on a moonless night.
The lawyers, judges and cops know the answer to the brothel question, even if their exact location is a closely-held secret.
The question prominent locals are asking each other in the days since the federal bust of the Canal Street brothel in April is, "Are you on the client list?"
A mere seven months after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, armed with evidence from months of court approved telephone wire taps, a team of FBI agents answered the tourists question by storming a two-story Victorian house on the 4300 block of Canal Street, just up the road from the French Quarter in Mid-City.
They busted Jeanette Maier, 43, and her mother, Tommie Taylor, 62, for conspiracy to run a prostitution ring operating across state lines. In the raid, they seized the booking and billing records containing the names of hundreds of clients, some of them prominent and married.
Both women admitted running a high-priced brothel using prostitutes who worked for $200 to $300 an hour using women who traveled a national prostitution circuit from New York to Boston, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. And they both agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, even if that meant naming names, according to attorney Vinny Mosca, who represents Ms. Maier and Ms. Taylor.
"My clients have an agreement with the government to cooperate," Mr. Mosca said. "If agents of the government debrief them, they will give truthful answers to any questions asked."
According to telephone wiretap record summaries, the names that could come out if there is a trial in the future include cops, at least one judge, a telecommunications mogul, a former head of the prestigious Mardi Gras society Rex, a partner in a prominent law firm, a member of one of the city's leading restaurant families, an executive with a large chemical company, bankers, stockbrokers, oil-field workers and a former professional football star.
The FBI got the green light to investigate goings on in the two-story, white-columned Victorian house by claiming a link to drug dealing and organized crime. Up to 10 agents worked on the case.
Apparently not enough evidence turned up to make a major racketeering case, however, so the federal indictments only included one minor marijuana charge against Loretta Mims, a 62-year-old New Orleans woman, who pleaded guilty May 8.
Ms. Taylor pleaded guilty to one minor count of money laundering, admitting she used profits from prostitution to write a $695 rent check. Prosecutors dropped five counts of money laundering and a marijuana conspiracy charge against the women in a plea bargain agreement, in exchange for their cooperation.
The prospect of the names coming out has some of the well-heeled in town a bit worried. Not all of the defendants have entered guilty pleas -- including some of the 10 suspected prostitutes in other cities -- which is why a trial is still a possibility in August. The booking and billing information could then be used as evidence and become part of the public trial record.
Sentencing for Ms. Maier, the madam, and Ms. Tayler, who helped run the business, is scheduled for August 28.
The case presents a puzzle for the local legal community, especially since acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said that there is no federal statute dealing with the customers when he announced the indictment in April.
"It demonstrates the lack of priorities on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department," Arthur A. "Buddy" Lemann III, one of the most experienced of the city's criminal defense lawyers, said in an interview. "It's a waste of time and money to spend all these federal resources to investigate a couple of ladies of the night. To make a federal offense out of it is like using an elephant gun to kill a fly."
They say prostitution is the world's oldest profession, but suicide bombers are the newest national security threat and the top priority of the Bush administration. So some people, even in Washington, D.C., wonder what the FBI was doing investigating a brothel with so many agents for so many months prior to and since Sept. 11.
"If the FBI can spend resources investigating whether there is prostitution in New Orleans, they ought to be able to find the resources to investigate what happened in this country prior to 9/11," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said in a news conference last week.
The issue made the national television talk shows, and even James Gill, a columnist with the Times-Picayune newspaper here, took the FBI and Justice Department to task.
"The feds might have failed to anticipate the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and ignored anti-American tirades from Arabs enrolled in our flight schools, but a handful of prostitutes would be relentlessly pursued," Mr. Gill wrote.
Ken Kaiser, special agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office, said the backlash is frustrating. The brothel investigation was a good one, he told the Times-Picayune newspaper, and is an example of the FBI doing its job of being a domestic watchdog.
"To say this was a tremendous waste of FBI resources," I deny it," he said.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick turned down an invitation in the form of a letter from Mr. Letten to review evidence in the case for a possible state prosecution.
"This is their case, and I don't know why they would want to give it to us," Connick told the Times-Picayune. "They spent so much time and money on it already. They could certainly include the customers as principals."
Mr. Letten maintains there is no federal statute to deal with "johns," and that any prosecution of customers would have to be pursued in state court.
Mr Lemann said the case is like a hot political potato Mr. Connick declined to catch. He said there is no guarantee the list of clients, in the form of booking and billing records seized from the Canal Street brothel by the FBI, will ever come out.
Local sentiment is there are too many rich and powerful people named in the records for the list to ever be made public.
"I don't think the list will ever come out," said real estate developer Bobbie Monroe, an Old Absinthe House regular on Fridays.
Some think the case should open a debate about an issue that has lingered just beneath the surface of propriety here since cops ran prostitution out of the red light district on Bourbon Street in the 1950s and '60s: Should prostitution be legalized?
Just down the street at the Jennifer Flowers' Kelsto Club, the city's newest club owner, whose fame came from an affair with Bill Clinton while he was the governor of Arkansas and who was inspired to move here and open a lounge in a former brothel in part due to a painting of a former madam, said the whole case is a red herring.
"Some of my best friends are prostitutes," Ms. Flowers said. "I think they should legalize prostitution and tax it."
Some also wonder if Chritsine Wiltz, author of The Last Madam, was a bit premature in calling Norma Wallace the last.
"Norma Wallace was the last madam of her era," Ms. Wiltz said in an exclusive interview. "I think it's clear from this there's always going to be a latest madam. There's always going to be somebody willing to take the risk."
But she said Ms. Wallace was careful never to allow her business to cross state lines.
"She was very smart that way," she said.
As for why Mr. Connick refused to get involved in the case, she wonders if it's "just business as usual in New Orleans, a town which likes its lurid local color."
The last prostitution case to come to light here in the 1990s involved a seedy massage parlor. The case against Norma Wallace in the early 1960s was the last big vice investigation of a high priced-brothel prior to the Canal Street brothel case, but Ms. Wiltz said Ms. Wallace would never have agreed to name her clients.
The only reason Ms. Maier agreed to name names in this case, Ms. Wiltz said, was to get the charges reduced, knowing "it would be very unlikely the list would ever be used."
Prostitution was legalized by city ordinance in 1897, in a confined area called Storyville, near the river and downtown on the site of what came to be the Iberville Housing Project. The area was shut down by the Navy in 1917 since it was too close to the new base and port, so the red light district moved to the French Quarter.
As late as the 1960s, prostitutes kept apartments on the second floor above businesses on Bourbon Street with two balcony lights. A red light meant busy. Green meant open for business.
But a series of police chiefs ran the elicit business off Bourbon Street, most notably Joseph Giarrusso, who became chief in 1960. The clean up the Quarter campaigns paved the way for seedy clubs to be replaced by the gift shops that dominate the Quarter today.
Famous New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt, who died in 1998, was the most vocal opponent of the anti-prostitution drive, since the ladies and jazz went hand in hand to make the French Quarter and Bourbon Street the tourist draw that fed the local economy.
Will the Canal Street brothel case start a serious debate on legalizing prostitution again?
"I sincerely doubt it," Ms. Wilz said. "As a society in general we are far too conservative to even think about that. And in New Orleans, I think we like too much being bad. Why would we want to make it good?"
That should answer the tourists' question. The open question is, who'se on the client list?
Glynn Wilson is a free-lance journalist based in New Orleans. Joe Halm contributed research to this report. A different version of this story first appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Sunday, June 16, 2002
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