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Ralph Vitale Jr. is tired of being hassled by the Man. From his town house in Arlington, the 55-year-old former federal budget analyst has spent the last four years fighting the Internal Revenue Service. With the amount of money and time he’s invested—hundreds of hours, thus far, in interviews with auditors and at a U.S. Tax Court trial—Vitale reckons he could have paid off what the government says he owes and been done with it. And that, Vitale says, is exactly what the IRS henchmen expected him to do.
But the government will not beat Vitale without a long and tedious fight. As he himself declared in his opening statement in Tax Court, way back on Oct. 17, 1997, “What the IRS hadn’t counted on was [my] training by [my] Italian Catholic parents, the Catholic nuns at St. Michael’s, and the Christian Brothers of St. John’s—most especially lessons taught by Sister Honorina in sixth grade and Sister Maria Patricia in eighth and Brother Matthew in ninth. These people taught character and background, how to react to strong negative pressures from powerful people. The person so trained does not bend to extortion.”
Sister Honorina might be a little less proud if she knew her guidance was being used to defend a citizen’s right to deduct research visits to prostitutes. But to Vitale, it’s a simple matter of justice and literary integrity.
All Vitale did, after all, was write a book—something he had always dreamed of doing. It’s called Searchlight, Nevada, and it’s a 114-page paperback set at a legal brothel in central Nevada. It’s a love story, after a fashion. Two young, D.C.-area men, tired of being manipulated and abandoned by the women in their lives, go west in search of some old-fashioned, pay-as-you-go fornication. Marionette women with long legs and painted nails, but no strings attached. Imagine that.
But to get his characters right, Vitale knew he needed to do more than just imagine. Sure, he knew plenty about the type of men in his book—restless government workers fantasizing about willing girls named Angel and Callie who line up to be loved by them. But what did a single man who had spent the last 33 years working for the Department of the Treasury know—really know—about the women of the Mustang Ranch?
So in 1993, Vitale put his cat in the kennel and went out to Nevada himself. Eighteen times over the course of two years, Vitale took time off from work for long weekends at the Mustang Ranch and other famous brothels he had been hearing about since he was a teenager in Silver Spring. He interviewed approximately 24 women, most more than once, taking notes on their lives—their children (most of them have at least one), their ex-boyfriends (almost all of them have been in bad relationships), and their mandatory gynecologist visits (Vitale even got to go along one time).
Most of the women were happy to cooperate with his research, Vitale says. He remembers how they would laugh when he read his notes back to them. But talk—especially in a brothel—is not cheap. Vitale paid each woman for her time, just like a regular customer. That meant shelling out an average of about $60 to $70 for about 20 minutes. If you’re going to really get to know a gal, the fees can add up.
And when it came time to do his taxes, Vitale went ahead and listed the brothel charges as deductibles, claiming a total of $9,140 in cash and credit-card payments to prostitutes on his 1993 and 1994 returns. He was writing a book, after all, which was indeed published in 1994. “This was a legitimate author’s pursuit of background,” Vitale says. He kept a log book of his interviews and had receipts for all the charge-card transactions.
The IRS sent Vitale a letter in June of 1995. The book expenses had triggered whatever mysterious series of clanging bells goes off to instigate an audit. Vitale didn’t panic. When he met the nice auditor at the IRS office in Baileys Crossroads, he explained himself and handed over all of his documents. Four years later, the agency is still demanding payment of more than $13,000 in back taxes and penalties.
Vitale is a rotund man who has sad, baggy eyes but breaks into an easy, boyish smile. Wearing a salmon-colored shirt and big square glasses, he lounges in his La-Z-Boy while his cat claws the shag rug by his feet. To a casual observer, Vitale looks the part of the amiable retiree, collecting coins and playing the stock market. But since he stopped clocking in at the federal bureaucracy, Vitale has developed a simmering resentment for the government he spent a career serving. “The IRS is an ugly, virtually criminal organization of people that have…no respect for the law,” he says. “They couldn’t care less if you have legitimate expenses to deduct.”
This past April, Judge William M. Fay issued an opinion in Vitale’s case allowing him to write off a small percentage of his expenses, but outright rejecting his travel costs and all the money he had paid to prostitutes, calling them too “personal in nature.” Next, Vitale and the three opposing IRS attorneys will file their responses and await the judge’s final decision. Vitale intends to appeal if the judge continues to find against him. All of this could take years, he says.
“If you’d like to know, I’m sick of it,” Vitale says. “But I won’t give up.”
The book at the heart of all the debate is a flimsy novella published by a company that has since gone bankrupt. Vitale claims that Searchlight, Nevada sold almost 10,000 copies before it went out of print—but he says he hasn’t seen much in the way of royalties because of the publisher’s collapse. The book’s cartoon cover makes it look more Nancy Drew than Penthouse Forum, although while Vitale insists it isn’t pornography, the bulk of the action takes place in various prostitutes’ beds.
Protagonist Jake Masterson instantly falls in love with the beautiful and “spunky” Angel. Vitale’s careful research displays itself almost immediately: Jake, you see, is amazed to discover that Angel is so much more than a pretty face. But it’s torture for him to know he’s not the only customer in her life. He copes with the pain by sleeping with Angel’s co-workers—who don’t seem to mind that he’s in love with another woman.
Despite Vitale’s insistence on getting the female characters right, the average woman in the book has the complexity of a blow-up doll. They do lots of stroking, sucking, and giggling, but mostly they just admire Jake Masterson. His noble tutelage helps Angel decide to quit the business for good and go back to Oregon. “I’m so glad I met you, Bucko. You made me feel good about myself. You gave me love and confidence,” Angel says when they part.
Jake has a lot in common with Vitale. Sure, he’s not a writer, but like his creator he’s a good Samaritan: One of Vitale’s defenses in Tax Court is that he has convinced 12 women to leave the brothels. “They all get messed up by [prostitution], there’s no mistaking that,” he says.
It’s Vitale’s—and Jake’s—appreciation of the women’s personalities that makes them different from the thousands of other tricks. They are the knights in shining armor, and lovers, too. As Jake says to Angel on Page 34, describing their nights of passion under the mirrored ceiling: “Most of what we do isn’t paid for, and you know it. We make love. That’s what we do every time.”
Truth be told, Vitale had sex twice in Nevada. “I thought it might be fun,” he explains sheepishly. But he didn’t deduct those times, all right? And he never had intercourse again with any of the prostitutes he interviewed. Never. You believe him because of his reason: “I don’t really like having sex using a Trojan,” he says, frequently. And in this day and age, the women demand that you use condoms.
So they just talked.
Well, they did other things, too, Vitale concedes when pressed. But he gets bashful when it comes to details. “I don’t want to get into Bill Clinton distinctions,” he says. He also can’t remember if they did those things every time. “It’s all a blur now.”
In any case, he says, he had to pay the women or else he wouldn’t have gotten more than a “Hey ya, handsome.” He needed gritty detail to write characters that come alive—which makes good literary sense. “If somebody doesn’t give me their personal experience, I don’t have time to read it,” Vitale says. “I understand the essence of a good story, and I like to tell one. I like to observe and tell the deeper part of people.” To write about prostitutes, he had to watch them in their natural setting.
And Vitale—who is something of a romantic—says the connection is what makes each encounter worth the price, anyway. “People think you can have a good time just because you have the money. But a guy can pay the money, and he can stick it in and pull it out, and that’s it. He can’t have a good time unless he can relate to her.”
Barbara Brents, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also knows something about making that connection. Brents interviewed about 20 prostitutes—in some of the very same brothels Vitale patronized—for a somewhat less racy forthcoming book called Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry. But she and her co-author didn’t pay anyone. “We didn’t even take anyone to lunch,” she says, explaining that their work was supported only by a tiny grant. “I was surprised,” she says. “We didn’t have any trouble at all getting them to talk for free.”
Brents says she has never heard of anyone being serviced by prostitutes in the name of research, although she has heard of writers paying women for time. She does point out that the women may be more willing to talk to women than men like Vitale. “They saw us as compadres,” she says.
Whether or not Vitale needed to pay the women, it certainly didn’t help his case that he participated in the fun. IRS attorney William Gregg refused to comment on the case, citing IRS policy. But in the 1997 hearing, Gregg noted Vitale’s “expansive use of the term ‘interview,’” remarking, “There’s more than just a solely business reason for the travel.” But when he was questioned by the judge, Gregg said Vitale’s tax forms would still have landed him in court even without bodily contact.
Gregg raised questions about Vitale’s commitment to a for-profit enterprise—a prerequisite to writing off expenses—noting that he was still employed full-time for the government when he became an “author.” The judge disagreed, saying that writing for Vitale was not a mere “hobby.” However, the judge concurred that even though he had made a sincere effort to document his work, Vitale’s records were inadequate.
As far as accountants are concerned, the sin of sloppy record-keeping is as damning as a dubious write-off. “That’s one lesson to learn from that: If you have some questionable expenditures, documentation is key,” says Ted Waters of the Virginia firm of Argy, Wiltse & Robinson. Beyond that, Waters admits that Vitale has a complicated case: For activities that are both business-related and pleasurable, the line is blurry. Still, with all due respect to the novelist, Waters says, “People that are in legitimate businesses usually don’t have this problem.”
Vitale, of course, chafes at the insinuation that he is anything but a serious author. He has other explanations for why the IRS has taken such an interest in him. And he relies on an endless series of analogies to illustrate the injustice. “[Washington Post restaurant critic] Phyllis Richman goes out and ‘personally’ eats all these nice meals,” he says. “What’s too personal for the IRS?” Then, later: “I think that they’re picking on me because I’m a little guy who didn’t make any money….Unlike Larry Flynt, I don’t have an army of lawyers.” CP