- By Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Nearly 10 years after billionaire Jeffrey Epstein signed a plea deal that let him escape federal prosecution on charges of sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls at his Palm Beach mansion, the 64-year-old politically-connected money manager faces the possibility that the agreement could be thrown out.
In court papers filed this month, attorneys representing two of the 30 young women prosecutors say Epstein molested lodged their final written pleas aimed at spurring U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra to force federal officials to reopen their investigation into the sordid case.
U.S. government lawyers in September will have another chance to defend themselves against allegations that they violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act by failing to alert Epstein’s victims of the terms of what some describe as a “sweetheart deal.” Marra could make a decision as early as this fall.
The stakes for all crime victims are high, said attorneys Bradley Edwards and Paul Cassell, who filed the rare lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of two Jane Does who were 13 and 14 when they claim Epstein paid them for sex.
If Marra dismisses the lawsuit, “then the government will never have to give any information in any case to any victim,” they wrote, urging him to uphold the provisions of the 13-year-old federal law.
At the same time, the stakes are equally high for Epstein, who has ferried President Bill Clinton on his private jet and counts celebrities, such as Britain’s Prince Andrew, as friends.
Marra has already ruled that if he finds that federal prosecutors violated the act, he will consider throwing out the plea deal that Epstein signed with federal prosecutors in 2007. Miami attorney Roy Black, one of dozens of high-profile lawyers who has represented Epstein, claims that would be manifestly unfair.
As part of the unusual non-prosecution agreement, which wasn’t shared with victims for nearly a year while and after it was being negotiated, federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges that could have sent Epstein to prison for life. In exchange, Epstein in 2008 pleaded guilty in Palm Beach County Circuit Court to two Florida criminal charges — one count each of soliciting a minor for prostitution and soliciting prostitution. He served 13 months of an 18-month sentence in a vacant wing of the county stockade — a cell he was allowed to leave 16 hours a day, six days a week.
Epstein, who now spends most of his time on his private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, also is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. In addition, as part of the plea deal, he paid roughly 30 women, who were identified by prosecutors as his victims, undisclosed amounts of money to settle civil lawsuits they had filed against him.
To throw out the deal after Epstein has been punished would rob him of his constitutional right to due process, Black wrote in court papers. “If a defendant lives up to his end of the bargain, the government is bound to perform its promises,” he wrote, quoting a prior court decision.
However, Edwards and Cassell claim that because federal prosecutors didn’t confer with their clients about the plea deal before it was made, they violated the law and that makes the non-prosecution agreement illegal. They cited examples where plea deals have been invalidated after judges later found prosecutors violated the crime victims’ rights law.
In most of the cases they cited, the mistakes were the result of oversights. But Edward and Cassell wrote, “The undisputed facts of this case prove that, rather than forthrightly discharging its obligations to numerous child sexual assault victims, the government chose to enter into a secret deal with the man who had victimized them.”
Federal prosecutors have said they didn’t reveal the terms of the non-prosecution agreement because they feared Epstein and his high-powered attorneys were trying to circumvent it. Still, Edwards and Cassell, said there was no justification for the secrecy.
“The government’s conduct here was particularly egregious, because it repeatedly found time to confer with attorneys for Epstein — the man who sexually abused the victims,” they said of emails and meetings between federal prosecutors, including U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who was then U.S. attorney for South Florida.
In an affidavit, Edwards said Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Villafana, who was handling Epstein’s case, had numerous chances to tell him and the young women he represented about the non-prosecution agreement. Instead, four months after the agreement was signed in September 2007, federal officials wrote victims letters, assuring them the case was still under investigation.
“This can be a lengthy process and we request your continued patience while we conduct a thorough investigation,” officials wrote in a January 2008 letter to Edwards’ clients.
In court papers, Villafana said she alerted Edwards the day before Epstein was to plead guilty in circuit court, hoping that Edwards, his clients and other alleged victims would attend the hearing. But Edwards said neither he nor the young women had any idea that the plea in state court meant Epstein wouldn’t be prosecuted for federal crimes.
“The victims (and their attorneys) could hardly have expected that the prosecutors and the man who had sexually abused them would be working together to conceal an arrangement that would prevent his prosecution for crimes against them,” Edwards and Cassell wrote.
While Judge Marra could allow a jury to decide the complex case, prosecutors are asking him to toss the women’s lawsuit and end the litigation.
Edwards and Cassell instead want him to rule that prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Once that determination is made, Marra could then decide what remedies to impose, the two lawyers argue.
Under the act, neither of their clients can seek “damages” from the government but the attorneys have suggested Marra could order the government to pay the women restitution, impose a monetary sanction and pay their legal fees.
Still, Cassell insisted: “This isn’t about money, it’s about justice.”
Cassell, who is a law professor at the University of Utah, said the case is being watched closely by victims’ rights advocates along with federal lawmakers who pushed the legislation through Congress and have publicly questioned prosecutors’ handling of Epstein’s case.
A decision ordering federal prosecutors to reopen the investigation could establish a national precedent, he said. “It will be a big win for the victims,” Cassell said. “That’s the way we look at it.”