New court filings are bringing fresh attention to a Florida sex scandal that could become grist for political trouble in the 2016 Presidential campaign.
The new legal filings allege that federal prosecutors in Florida “repeatedly” and “intentionally” violated the rights of dozens of teenage sex abuse victims by secretly negotiating an “extraordinarily lenient” deal with a wealthy Palm Beach financier known in the past to have socialized with powerful business and political figures -- including former President Bill Clinton and current GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
Prosecutors went to great lengths to keep secret the non-prosecution agreement reached in 2007 with Jeffrey Epstein, attorneys for the victims allege, “because of the strong objection they would have faced from victims of Epstein’s abuse, and because of the public criticism that would have resulted from allowing a politically-connected billionaire who had sexually abused more than 30 minor girls to escape ... with only a county court jail sentence.”
Throughout the negotiations -- and for nearly a year after the agreement was signed -- the victims were kept in the dark, their attorneys said, strung along as government lawyers promised victims they were still investigating even long after they had cut Epstein an “indulgent” deal.
The Epstein scandal has been tabloid fodder for years because of allegations that he maintained friendships with an array of powerful world figures while at the same time allegedly paying high school girls for illicit massages and sex. Epstein has maintained that he did not know the women were minors and claimed that many of them lied about their age.
But with his victims back in court to challenge the government’s handling of the case, there is new attention on Epstein’s ties to two men who find themselves facing the glare of a presidential campaign -- Bill Clinton, husband of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and Trump, who is currently leading the GOP primary race.
Before any allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 2005, Trump and Bill Clinton spoke glowingly of Epstein, and court records have included documents and testimony suggesting both men flew with Epstein on his private jets.
Court files document long-running ties between Epstein and the former president. Bill Clinton flew on at least six trips with Epstein and his entourage in 2002 and 2003 including to international destinations such as Paris, Bangkok and Brunei, according to logs kept by one of Epstein’s pilots.
And as Epstein first faced federal prosecution a few years later, one of his lawyers, Gerald B. Lefcourt, wrote to prosecutors to tout Epstein’s pedigree as “part of the original group that conceived of the Clinton Global Initiative,” according to a letter attached to Wednesday’s court filing.
Reached Wednesday, Lefcourt said he would not have made that representation to the prosecutors had he not believed it was true. Representatives for both the Clinton Global Initiative and the former President did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment. According to the organization’s website, CGI was formed in 2005 by former President Clinton “after a lifetime of attending meetings where issues were discussed but no action was taken.”
There are already signs that the connections between Epstein and Clinton could prove problematic for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 White House bid, even though the ties to Epstein were her husband’s, not hers.
At a conservative political conference one year ago, before he formally announced his bid for president – Trump told the audience that Clinton is a "nice guy," but has "a lot of problems coming up, in my opinion, with the famous island" off of St. Thomas where Epstein entertained his wealthy and famous friends.
To date, no documentary evidence has emerged to show that Clinton ever got near Epstein’s island home, and the U.S. Secret Service, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, says it has no records of its agents traveling there in the years after Clinton left office.
Whether Trump invokes the scandal in an attempt to spur questions about Clinton's association with Epstein may depend on his own history with the wealthy investor. In a New York Magazine article in 2002, Trump boasted of his friendship with Epstein: “I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy.”
"He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it -- Jeffrey enjoys his social life,” he told the magazine.
That interview, along with sworn testimony from Epstein's brother indicating that Trump, too, once hitched a ride on Epstein's jet, left unanswered questions about the relationship in the years before Epstein's prosecution.
Trump’s lawyer, Alan Garten, told ABC News there was “not much to tell” about Trump’s friendship with Epstein.
“Mr. Trump knew Epstein because he sometimes socialized at Mr. Trump's club, Mar-a-Lago,” Garten said.
At the heart of this week’s court filings is a deal Epstein reached with federal prosecutors in September of 2007 that spared him from a federal prosecution. After an extensive investigation by the Palm Beach police and the FBI, the Justice Department effectively immunized Epstein for multiple alleged offenses involving underage girls in exchange for his guilty pleas to two comparatively minor sex crimes in Florida state court. And Epstein’s lawyers persuaded the federal government to keep the terms of the agreement secret, according to the court filing by victims’ attorneys Bradley Edwards and Paul Cassell.
On the day the deal was signed, an attorney for Epstein sent an email to the federal prosecutor handling the case which read, “Please do whatever you can to keep this from becoming public,” according to an email exchange attached to Wednesday’s filing.
Hundreds of pages of newly-disclosed correspondence between federal prosecutors and Epstein’s dream team of defense lawyers, including Jay Lefkowitz, Kenneth Starr, Alan Dershowitz, Roy Black, and Lefcourt, provide an inside look at Epstein’s efforts to forestall the federal prosecution and at the effort to conceal the resulting deal, despite repeated acknowledgements by government lawyers that they were legally required to inform the victims.
“Neither federal agents nor anyone from your Office should contact the [alleged victims] to inform them of the resolution of the case,” wrote Lefkowitz in a letter to then-U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta a month after the deal was signed. “Not only would that violate the confidentiality of the agreement, but Mr. Epstein also will have no control over what is communicated to the identified individuals at this most critical stage. We believe it is essential that we participate in crafting mutually acceptable communication to the [alleged victims].”
While the relationship between Epstein’s legal team and the U.S. attorneys would eventually devolve into what Acosta later described as “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors,” the early negotiations took on a cooperative tone, victims’ attorneys allege, that had defense lawyers and prosecutors “working together to concoct a criminal charge for Epstein to plea to other than his sexual abuse of minors.”
Less than two weeks before the plea agreement was reached, a prosecutor emailed an Epstein lawyer to say that she’d been "spending some quality time with Title 18 [the United States criminal code] looking for misdemeanors," according to an email exchange attached to the court filing.
From the outset, Epstein’s lawyers contended that the federal government was overreaching by investigating alleged crimes that more appropriately belonged in state courts – and tried unsuccessfully to convince the prosecutors that “Mr. Epstein never targeted minors.”
The correspondence revealed Wednesday also shed light on the Epstein camp’s efforts to cast him as an altruist – touting his extensive charitable giving and highlighting his supposed connections to prominent organizations.
“In a feature article about Mr. Epstein in New York Magazine,” Lefcourt wrote in a letter to prosecutors, “former President Clinton aptly described Mr. Epstein as ‘a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first century science.’ President Clinton reached this conclusion during a month-long trip to Africa with Mr. Epstein, which Mr. Epstein hosted. The purpose of that trip was to increase AIDS awareness; to work towards a solution to the AIDS crisis; and to provide funding to reduce the costs of delivering medications to those inflicted (sic) with the disease.”
Epstein entered his guilty pleas in June of 2008 to one count of solicitation of a prostitute and one count of solicitation of a prostitute who is a minor. He served 13 months in a private wing of the Palm Beach County stockade with liberal work-release privileges that allowed him to spend up to sixteen hours a day at his office. He is also required to register as a sex offender in any state where he has a home.
The law enforcement investigations were centered on allegations that Epstein had engaged his personal assistants in a long-running scheme to recruit underage girls to his homes in Florida and elsewhere for erotic massages and other lewd conduct.
“Some of those women went to Mr. Epstein’s home only once,” a federal prosecutor wrote in 2007 in a draft letter to a judge tasked with helping select an attorney for the victims. “Some went there as much as 100 times or more. Some of the women’s conduct was limited to performing a topless or nude massage while Mr. Epstein masturbated himself. For other women, the conduct escalated to full sexual intercourse.”
If he’d been charged and convicted on the federal counts, Epstein might have spent the rest of his life in prison. Instead, he now splits his time between his permanent residence - a private island estate off the coast of St. Thomas – and homes in Paris, New Mexico and New York City, where he owns what is purported to be one of the largest single-family residences in Manhattan.
Two of Epstein’s alleged victims, then 14-year-old girls now identified in court documents as Jane Does 1 and 2, filed suit in 2008 accusing the government of violating the federal law which guarantees crime victims the right to confer with prosecutors and to be treated fairly by the justice system. Wednesday’s filing in the case seeks a ruling from the judge that their rights – and those of all the alleged Epstein victims identified in the federal investigation - were indeed violated by the government. Their ultimate goal is the invalidation of Epstein’s “sweetheart plea deal.”
“Despite the fact that this case has been in litigation for more than seven years spanning several hundred pleadings,” write the victims’ attorneys, “the Government does not write even a single sentence explaining why it entered into [a deal] with a sex offender who had committed hundreds of federal sex offenses against young girls. Perhaps there is some reason for this extraordinary leniency. But if so, the Government has yet to offer it.”
A spokesperson for Wilfredo Ferrer, the current U.S. Attorney in Miami who is defending the government’s handling of Epstein’s case, declined to comment on the allegations raised by the victims. Former U.S. Attorney Acosta did not respond to request for comment, nor did Lefkowitz, Epstein’s attorney who handled the bulk of the negotiations with the government at the time.
In a court filing last January, Epstein’s attorneys argued that despite what the victims’ attorneys claim, the deal he made with the government was negotiated “at arm’s length” with prosecutors. “There is no reality to the notion that Epstein somehow coerced the United States government into a non-prosecution agreement by improper means,” the filing says.