- Julie Brownlongtime investigative reporter at the Miami Herald.
We look at the unbelievable story of multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who for years orchestrated a sex trafficking network of hundreds of underage girls and is accused of regularly molesting children as young as 13 at his Florida mansion. But the serial sex offender received a shockingly lenient sentence for his crimes: 13 months in county jail, with many of his days spent at his Palm Beach office with regular visitors. This was all due to a plea deal approved by Trump’s Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who was then U.S. attorney in Miami. The plea deal allowed Epstein to avoid a federal trial and possible life in prison, and effectively ended an FBI probe into the case. The Miami Herald recently published a series of articles exposing Epstein’s crimes and the high-powered people who protected him. We speak with investigative reporter Julie Brown in a web exclusive conversation. Her series exposing multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes is titled “Perversion of Justice.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Part 2 of the unbelievable story, the case of multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who for years orchestrated a sex trafficking network of hundreds of underage girls, accused of regularly molesting children as young as 13 at his Florida mansion. But the serial sex offender received a shockingly lenient sentence for his crimes: 13 months in county jail, with many of the days spent at his Palm Beach office with regular visitors. His driver would take him from the jail to work each day, and then he would go back to the jail to sleep.
This was all due to a plea deal approved by Trump’s secretary of labor, Alexander Acosta, who was then U.S. attorney in Miami. The plea deal allowed Epstein to avoid a federal trial and possible life in prison, and effectively ended an FBI probe into the case.
We’re joined by Julie Brown, longtime investigative reporter at the Miami Herald. Her series exposing multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes is headlined “Perversion of Justice.”
Julie, if you can—although we talked about this in Part 1, if you can summarize for us how the original case that was brought by Alex Acosta subverted any federal investigation, and, you know, just how all this played out and when it happened?
JULIE BROWN: Well, this happened around—he was first—Epstein was first investigated by police in 2005. The state attorney in Palm Beach reviewed the case in 2006, decided he didn’t want to fully prosecute Epstein. So the police chief in Palm Beach, who was very disturbed by the fact that it seemed like Epstein was going to almost get off, decided to refer this to the feds, to the FBI and to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Alex Acosta came into the picture in 2007, overseeing the case. And from the get-go, he was pretty hands-on, because the lawyers that Epstein hired were from the law firm that he had worked for previously, Kirkland & Ellis. These were very high-profile lawyers. And they put a lot of pressure to bear on him to work out some kind of a plea agreement, even though at the same time the plea negotiations were going on, the FBI was uncovering more and more evidence that Epstein’s crimes went far beyond Palm Beach, that he possibly was operating an international sex trafficking organization, in which he had recruiters overseas. And so, there were two parallel things going on: the FBI working the case at the same time that Alex Acosta and his team were trying to make the case go away, so to speak, by negotiating some kind of a plea bargain.
Essentially, what happened was, by making this deal, it basically ended the federal investigation. Epstein’s lawyers were very adept at keeping a lid on this, so the worst evidence, the worst of what he had—what Epstein had done with these girls, was really kept very quiet until well after Epstein was in jail. And it was too late for these victims to object to any kind of a plea deal, because they weren’t kept in the loop at all. They were never told that this is what the U.S. Attorney’s Office was doing. They were assured, throughout this time period, that the FBI was dutifully investigating and that they intended to prosecute him.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he went to jail for 18 months in the Palm County—in Florida’s Palm Beach County jail?
JULIE BROWN: Well, he was sentenced to 18 months, but he only served 13. And it was—yes, it was in a private wing, actually, of the Palm Beach County jail. He had a very friendly relationship with the Palm Beach County sheriff. You know, he lived in Palm Beach. He hired some of the sheriff’s deputies for private details. So he knew—he made it a point of knowing the sheriff, and the sheriff approved this cushy work release that he was able to get, where he really didn’t spend any more time in jail other than to basically sleep there.
AMY GOODMAN: He would—his driver would take him in the morning, and he would go to work for throughout the day and then just go back to sleep. Now, explain the non-prosecution agreement and how it short-circuited the FBI investigation.
JULIE BROWN: Well, in signing the deal—at the time before the deal was actually, you know, executed, there was an ongoing FBI investigation that was uncovering new evidence and new victims all the time. I mean, recent files that I obtained over the past few months showed that the FBI agents were, you know, being flown to New York and New Mexico and other places to interview possible victims and other witnesses. But as a part of this deal that they eventually agreed to, this non-prosecution agreement, the FBI investigation ceased.
And what is also even more unusual, part of the wording in this non-prosecution agreement gave immunity not only to Epstein for federal—any federal prosecution, but to all his named and unnamed co-conspirators. In other words, anybody—and there were many people who helped him. You know, he had schedulers. He had recruiters. He had people, if they weren’t participating in the criminal activity, they helped enable his criminal activity. All those people, some of whom we don’t even know who they are, were given immunity from federal prosecution. And it’s a very unusual document. It’s a very unusual non-prosecution agreement, from what I understand.
AMY GOODMAN: And ultimately, he simply pled guilty to two felony prostitution charges in state court. That’s what he served the 13 months for?
JULIE BROWN: That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the Miami Herald’s video investigation based on your reporting. This is part of the video that accompanies your exposé.
NARRATOR: Epstein, then in his fifties, was also suspected of organizing sex activities with underage girls at his homes in New York City, New Mexico and on his private island in the Caribbean.
BRAD EDWARDS: You’re talking about hundreds of children all over the world.
MIKE FISTEN: Victims that were alleged sex slaves of Jeffrey Epstein that they bought over from Eastern Bloc countries.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of girls go through Jeffrey’s swinging door, his ever-revolving door.
JENA-LISA JONES: This guy is big time. He knows people that know people that know people.
NARRATOR: Flight logs from his plane and his address book read like a Who’s Who of some of the richest and most famous and powerful people in the world—celebrities, actors, philanthropists, academics and world leaders.
SIGRID McCAWLEY: It’s really disappointing to look—as a lawyer, to look at the circumstance and say, “How did this happen?” One individual commits one abuse of a minor in—one instance of abuse of a minor, and they’re held accountable for years and years through the criminal justice system. This individual abused hundreds of girls, and nothing happened. It’s really, really unfortunate. We look at that, and we say, “How did the criminal justice system fail these girls in such a significant way? How has that happened?”
NARRATOR: There was ample physical evidence and witness testimony to support the girls’ stories, including notepads seized from Epstein’s home with their names and phone numbers, along with phone records. Despite the corroborating evidence, Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer wanted to charge Epstein only with a misdemeanor.
MICHAEL REITER: And once that happened, it was clear to me that justice would not be served by the state attorney in the handling of the case. And we referred it to the FBI. And then there were many, many more victims after that time.
BRAD EDWARDS: Epstein hired somebody that would impress the state attorney, Barry Krischer, to drop the investigation
MIKE FISTEN: The U.S. Attorney’s Office got involved with this case, with Jeffrey Epstein’s A list of defense attorneys, that are extremely well known and extremely powerful. I think these attorneys were able to manipulate the sitting U.S. attorney and the assistant U.S. attorney working the cases. A few things happened in this case that during my law enforcement career I’ve never seen before. The U.S. attorneys here had an indictment, and they were sending it back and forth to Jeffrey’s lawyers for changes. Never seen anything like that before.
BRAD EDWARDS: I started getting somewhat of an inclination that this is a situation where somehow, for some reason, the defendant and the government are working together against the victims. Although that kind of conspiracy theory sounds so preposterous that I didn’t want to believe it.
NARRATOR: A subsequent FBI investigation found a sprawling network of victims and enough evidence to fill a 53-page indictment with federal sex crime charges. But Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta signed off on a secret plea bargain, while deliberately not informing Epstein’s victims. The deal granted Epstein and his accomplices immunity from federal prosecution. Epstein pleaded guilty in state court to two prostitution charges and served 13 months. Epstein’s punishment was like that of no other sex offender in Florida. He had a private space in a vacant wing of the Palm Beach County Stockade, but records show he spent limited time there. He was allowed to go to his private West Palm Beach office, where he spent up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, often accepting visitors, including female friends.
MIKE FISTEN: And what he ended up pleaing to was a joke. The sentence he served was even a bigger joke. And then his probation was a slap in everybody’s face.
BRAD EDWARDS: The government, by that agreement, was definitely putting their name on something that they believed at that moment was ending the possibility of prosecution and ending the victims’ rights, right there. That’s what the government believed.
MICHELLE LICATA: How can you do that to all these—all these girls? How can you tell them that what he did was OK?
NARRATOR: Acosta, now President Trump’s labor secretary, didn’t explain why he sealed the details of Epstein’s plea so that no one would know the scope of Epstein’s crimes or who was involved. Years later, he said he and his staff are bombarded by Epstein’s army of legal superstars, who launched a year-long assault against him and other prosecutors that they took all the way to the U.S. attorney general in Washington, D.C.
MARCI HAMILTON: If you don’t let the victims be a part of the solution, there is no solution. And in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the prosecutors created a universe that excluded the victims and disempowered them for a second time, and empowered the perpetrator. That is absolutely unacceptable.
COURTNEY WILD: Really, if you think about it too hard, it’s scary, because this is our government that’s supposed to protect us but has done everything to protect, you know, a pedophile.
NARRATOR: Federal prosecutors claim they achieved a victory by forcing Epstein to register as a sex offender. But there’s no agency that regularly monitors his whereabouts. He lists his residence as the U.S. Virgin Islands, but his flight records show that he takes trips around the United States and Europe in his new private plane.
MICHAEL REITER: This is probably the most unjust outcome of any case that I’ve been involved in, in 40 years.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: I think it’s something that the government just can’t ignore anymore. There’s so many of us, that they just can’t forget about it. It’s not something that’s going to be yesterday’s news.
NARRATOR: Since then, about two dozen civil lawsuits have been filed in connection with the case, including one set to go to trial in December in state court in Palm Beach County that could finally expose more about Epstein’s crimes, how many people were involved and why his case was dismissed by federal prosecutors. Another case, filed by Epstein’s victims in federal court, seeks to invalidate Epstein’s plea deal and send him to prison.
JACK SCAROLA: I am involved in this case, in defending the integrity of the justice system, in making sure that we do everything we can to be sure that justice is not bought.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS: He needs to be behind bars. He needs to be behind bars for the rest of his life. There are way too many girls for him not to be. It’s just mind-blowing.
AMY GOODMAN: That video produced by the Miami Herald, based on the reporting of Julie Brown, who is our guest, longtime investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, joining us from Fort Lauderdale. I mean, I think people’s jaws have dropped, in really looking at this case right now. The piece refers to the December lawsuits, and, of course, this is now January. Explain what happened in December.
JULIE BROWN: Well, the main lawsuit that was scheduled to—actually, it was a trial that was scheduled to begin in Palm Beach County in December, involved Jeffrey Epstein and one of the lawyers that has represented the victims. Epstein—one of the most egregious things about this whole story, in my view, was the way that Epstein and the people he hired, his lawyers, the private investigators he hired, were able to bully everyone associated with this case who stood up for the girls. He went after the police chief. He went after the lead detective. You know, investigators followed these girls. They put their high beams on their houses. They ran some of their family members off the road. They just—it was a scorched-earth effort to intimidate anyone that would have tried to hold Epstein accountable.
And one of the people that Epstein went after was Brad Edwards, who was really the only—early on, the only person who stood up for these victims and was willing to do so pro bono, bringing this federal case against the U.S. government on behalf of the victims. And what Epstein basically did was he went after Edwards, and Edwards sued him for defamation because of some of the allegations, that are pretty complicated to get into. But he basically tried to ruin his reputation by accusing him of something that he didn’t do. Edwards sued him for defamation. The case also went on for years and years, because Epstein had the money, the financial resources, to just keep this case going.
And after my story ran and, you know, it received a lot of attention, Epstein realized that—you know, that he wasn’t going to be able to keep this case going. The trial was going to produce a lot of women who had been abused by him. And so he settled it. And in settling it, he issued a statement, essentially admitting that that’s exactly what he had been doing, that he had bullied the lawyer, Brad Edwards, because he wanted to try to intimidate him into—to not pursuing his cases on behalf of the victims.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was the lawyer with him that settled this case?
JULIE BROWN: The lawyer with—it was Brad Edwards. The lawyer representing the victims is Brad Edwards, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, who brought the Crime Victims’ Rights Act lawsuit, which is still ongoing. That lawsuit seeks to overturn this whole plea agreement. If the federal judge agrees with Edwards and the victims, it would be a precedent-setting case, because this has never been done before, where you have a plea agreement that not only has been signed, you know, and done with, but Epstein has already served his jail term, years ago. So, it would be really a precedent to set to overturn a plea agreement like this that is already signed and done.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times op-ed, “Why Does Alex Acosta Still Have a Job?” And she’s really reporting your investigation and talking about the significance of it. And she says, “[O]ne of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Roberts, told The Herald that Epstein didn’t just abuse her himself, he also 'lent' her out to 'politicians and academics and royalty.' She claimed in a 2015 affidavit that she’d had sex with both Prince Andrew of Britain—she included a photograph of them together—and with one of Epstein’s attorneys, Alan Dershowitz, now best known for his public defenses of Trump. (Dershowitz has said Roberts lied to try to extract money from wealthy men. In 2015, a federal judge, Kenneth A. Marra, struck the allegations from the court record; attorneys for Roberts called the filing a 'tactical mistake' and withdrew the allegations.)” Can you talk about what she’s referring to?
JULIE BROWN: Well, she was recruited. She worked, ironically, at Mar-a-Lago when she was 16, 17 years old, in the spa at Mar-a-Lago. And Epstein has an associate named Ghislaine Maxwell, who had been going from spa to spa, essentially, to try to get young girls, hire them as masseuses for Jeffrey Epstein. And so, she met her, Virginia, at—Ghislaine met Virginia at Mar-a-Lago, which is essentially, basically, around the corner from Epstein’s home in Palm Beach—they’re only a stone’s throw from each other—and convinced her to come to Jeffrey’s home, telling her that, you know, he wanted to hire a masseuse. She, at the time, was studying to become a masseuse. She was thinking about doing it as a career. And when she went—she claims, when she was brought to the house, she was groomed, from the very beginning, to do these sexually charged massages, which led into intercourse.
She had come from a very troubled past. She had already been sex-trafficked by another sex trafficker. She had been homeless in Miami when she was, you know, 15, 16 years old, and had fallen prey to a sex trafficker in Miami. So, in some respects, I think she felt that she was safe. Here, she was with this woman, Ghislaine Maxwell, who had promised her that they were sort of going to take care of her. And she got sucked into this whole, you know, sex trafficking arrangement where—she claims, anyway, that Epstein and Maxwell essentially pimped her out to other powerful people. She suspects that it was because he wanted—Epstein wanted to have some kind of leverage over some of these powerful people that she was asked to have sex with.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, according to your reporting, Julie, in 2016, a lawsuit is filed in Manhattan by a woman who once used the name Katie Johnson, claiming she was raped by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a party at Epstein’s Manhattan mansion in 1994, when she was 13 years old. Trump and Epstein both categorically deny it ever happened. What more do you know about this?
JULIE BROWN: Right. Well, you know, the case is really a mystery. She’s never gone public. I mean, she filed the lawsuit. That’s an assumed name. Katie Johnson is not her real name. I spoke with her lawyers as I was doing this investigation. Her lawyers firmly believed these allegations, or they wouldn’t have filed the lawsuit. However, just, you know, a few days before the 2016 election, she just decided that she wasn’t going to go through with it. And she essentially disappeared. Nobody really knows. She’s claimed that she had been threatened and she felt fearful for her life, and she disappeared. But no one really has been able to find her. And, you know, there’s been no real proof of her allegations. There really hasn’t, other than her word that this happened.
It did follow, you know, the same kind of trajectory that Epstein’s other crimes did, in that she claims she was recruited at Port Authority in New York. When she came there, she wanted to be a model. Someone approached her, said, “I know someone with modeling connections.” You know, Epstein was affiliated with Leslie Wexner, who owned The Limited and Victoria’s Secret. Epstein often used that, to dangle that in front of some of these girls, to say, “I can make you a model. I can make you famous. I can get you a job with Victoria’s Secret.” Those kinds of things. So, she claims she was told those same kind of things, which fits in with what we know happened with some of these other girls. But other than that, there has been really no evidence that has come—that her story is true at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Julie, if you can explain what the Federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act—and how does this play into this story? Explain exactly what the victims understood as these cases have moved forward in court, and what may have been violated, why they have grounds for civil suits today.
JULIE BROWN: Well, Congress passed the Crime Victims’ Rights Act in order to give crime victims a say in their cases. In other words, Congress recognized that there was a time that the prosecutors, police and other people would just, you know, investigate these cases and leave them completely out of the picture, not allow them to participate in the process. And because this had happened so often, Congress passed this law that enumerated certain rights that crime victims have. Among them, they have the right to confer with prosecutors to find out how’s the case going. Prosecutors can’t ignore their phone calls or their letters. They have to say, “Here’s the status of the case,” or they have to respond in some way.
There’s a number of other rights that are listed in the act, but one of the key ones pertaining to this case is the one where they are to be notified of any impending plea deal. In this particular case, these plea negotiations were ongoing for a very long time. They were—you know, he had a number of times where they signed on a dotted line with this plea deal, so they were official documents saying that there was a plea deal. And Epstein and his attorneys kept pressuring prosecutors to keep the fact that they had this plea arrangement secret. And not only did they convince Acosta to keep it quiet and not even tell the victims about it, but they also persuaded Acosta to seal it, meaning nobody—the media, the public—they went out of their way to make sure this whole thing was signed and—negotiated, signed and sealed in secret.
So, by the time it was all done, Epstein appeared in court. He was sentenced. By the way, they didn’t even tell the judge. In some ways, they misled the judge to what the contents and what the gist of the deal was. They misled the judge, in court, at his sentencing hearing, about what this case was about. And it wasn’t until after he was already in prison that the—or in jail, that the women and their lawyers realized, “What just happened? How did this happen? What happened to the FBI case?” And then the prosecutors didn’t even tell them. Acosta didn’t tell them. No one would tell them exactly what the deal even contained.
They had to go to court as part of this Crime Victims’ Rights lawsuit. They filed a motion asking a federal judge to enforce. “Wait a minute. We’re crime victims. We were supposed to be told about this.” And the U.S. government, the federal prosecutors, essentially said, “Tough. You know, you’re going to have to take us to court. If you want to see what’s in this agreement, sue us.” And that’s what they had to do. And it took them months to be able to even look at the plea deal to even find out what happened. And it took almost—he was practically out of prison before the public knew the contents of this non-prosecution agreement.
AMY GOODMAN: This may be a ridiculous question to ask, but what has shocked you most about this case, in the many months that you’ve been investigating this?
JULIE BROWN: Oh, gosh, so much. You know, I think what has shocked me most is, to be honest, is—because it’s so fresh in my mind, is the confirmation hearing that they held for Acosta, you know, last year, after he was nominated. You know, these—you know, the senators at these confirmation hearings certainly knew about this case, and he was barely questioned about it. I think Tim Kaine was the only one that asked a couple of hard questions. And then they just moved on to other topics.
It was—now, granted, this was before the #MeToo movement, when this first happened, when he was—when he was nominated. And I know that the #MeToo movement has raised a lot of the consciousness of a lot of people. But still, this was probably the most controversial case of Alex Acosta’s career, and Congress, in the Senate, barely asked any questions about it at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Julie Brown, I want to thank you so much for being with us, longtime investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, past winner of the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center Award. Her series on Jeffrey Epstein is headlined “Perversion of Justice.” We will link to it at democracynow.org.
I’m Amy Goodman. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.