As the phone records of the “D.C. Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, became public last week, curious Washingtonians started searching a mysterious database at dcphonelist.com that had organized mountains of her documents.
In their first on-the-record phone interview, the men behind the website spoke to the Hill about who they are, how they created the database and why they put it online.
Kevin, Igor and Yoni described their experiences in a conference call. The crew’s fourth member, Danny, was not present.
All asked that their last names not be printed.
Kevin said they were concerned for their respective employers.
“It also prevents people from calling us up and harassing us, or worse,” he said. “The irony is not entirely lost on us.”
The website’s registration remains private and its purveyors are shy with the press, e-mailing an Associated Press reporter for an article on Palfrey last week.
Many have plugged individuals’ phone numbers into the database in attempts to determine who utilized Palfrey’s services.
Some big fish have come under fire following their outing as possible clients, such as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and a former Bush administration official, Randall Tobias.
The proprietor of a Washington, D.C. escort service, Palfrey has been charged by federal authorities with running a prostitution ring. She has maintained her innocence and released her phone records to find witnesses for her potential trial.
All in their mid-20s, the “D.C. Phone Listers” — as they identified themselves in their first e-mail to The Hill — are computer programmers and IT specialists who live and work in the Boston area. All have informed their employers of their work for the website.
Fast friends since 2001, the Brandeis University alumni studied computer science, political science and philosophy and worked on the college newspaper.
The website’s e-mail address includes the name “Dembitz” — the middle name of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis — in a nod to the group’s alma mater, which was named for the judge.
The four aim to empower local reporters and citizen journalists, who may not have the resources of national media organizations, by posting the searchable database online.
“What this does is let someone in Kansas who has the right phone numbers search the data and see for himself,” Yoni said.
Feedback so far has been “all positive,” according to the group, with a few corrections made and several individuals saying their phone numbers were misdials.
Palfrey is a fan of the group’s work. “God bless them,” said Palfrey, who called the website’s founders “the Brandeis Boys” during an interview.
“I think what they are doing is a great, patriotic service to this country,” Palfrey said. “These fellows are democracy in action.”
Palfrey’s lawyer, Montgomery Blair Sibley, said that since Palfrey’s assets have been seized, she could not post a similar database.
“We got quotes from five or six people that said [it] would cost between $15,000 and $30,000 to do this very thing they have done now,” Sibley said. The attorney said the website has helped find about a dozen witnesses.
Not hired by Palfrey, the website team has had little contact with her or her attorney beyond a few e-mails and linking to one another’s websites. Kevin and others have asked Sibley to rescan some of the phone records so they can be used for the website.
The project’s only monetary expenditure so far was buying the domain for $10. The group said it has neither earned nor lost any money. “We joke about selling T-shirts,” Igor said.
“It would be throwing another layer of complication on it by putting ads up,” Kevin said, adding that that “might raise questions about our integrity.”
But the site has cost everyone involved plenty of time, about 100 man-hours between the four. On Monday, July 9, when Palfrey’s phone records were released, the group stayed up until 5 in the morning to complete the site.
After downloading the phone records, Igor used software to turn scanned images into text files, a process known as “optical character recognition,” or OCR. Kevin then took the lead on writing the computer program to parse the phone numbers from the data, while Danny designed the website.
So far, there have been more than 100,000 visits to the site and close to 50,000 searches, according to the team.
Yet the data is not perfect. OCR cannot catch everything, they said, and many of the scanned images could not be translated into useable text files. Plus, “even if the data is accurate, it is a list of numbers, not a list of clients,” Kevin said — hence a prominent disclaimer on the site.
More records are planned for release next week, according to Palfrey. Of the estimated 75,000 outgoing calls, no calls from 1997 have been made public.
“I understand there are more to come,” said Palfrey, talking about potentially other big names in her phone records. “I think the real meat is the lobbyists here because they’re all connected to a member of Congress.”
– By Kevin Bogardus