One intriguing aspect of a new criminal case against Jeffrey Epstein is that the matter is assigned to the Public Corruption Unit of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office. As its name implies, that unit typically handles cases involving public officials. Epstein is instead the billionaire money manager who socializes with powerful people such as Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew.
On Monday, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) announced criminal charges against Epstein, alleging that he "sexually exploited and abused dozens of underage girls" between 2002 and 2005.
Epstein, 66, pleaded not guilty.
Significantly, the indictment covers conduct occurring not only at Epstein's Manhattan mansion but also at his home in Palm Beach, Florida. The indictment alleges that Epstein worked with several employees and associates to entice girls as young as 14 to come to his homes to perform sex acts in exchange for money. He used some of the girls to recruit other minor victims by paying them, building a "vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit." The indictment alleges that he targeted girls who were, "for various reasons, often particularly vulnerable to exploitation."
Long prison sentence facing Epstein
The trafficking count carries a sentence of up to 40 years in federal prison, where parole has been abolished.
In addition, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman stated that during the execution of a search warrant at Epstein's home, agents found nude photographs of what appeared to be underage girls. That evidence could result in charges of possessing or even manufacturing child pornography, which carries an additional mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years per count. The math could add up quickly. Such a potentially lengthy sentence gives a defendant a powerful incentive to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of others.
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This isn't Epstein's first scandal
Adding to the intrigue is Epstein's history. He was the subject of a controversial nonprosecution agreement that was negotiated in 2007 with former Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, who now serves as the U.S. secretary of Labor. The agreement stated that Epstein was under investigation for violating sex trafficking laws for conduct occurring between 2001 and 2007. The agreement provided that no federal charges would be filed, and permitted Epstein to plead guilty to a single state charge of soliciting prostitution.
The agreement also provided that Epstein would serve 18 months in custody, but, in fact, he served only 13 months, mostly on work release at his own office. Epstein also acknowledged that he would be required to register as a sex offender and agreed to pay restitution to the victims.
In February, a judge found that prosecutors violated federal law by failing to notify the victims of the agreement before it was entered in court. The Department of Justice is now investigating allegations of professional misconduct by DOJ attorneys in handling the case.
In a particularly unusual provision of that agreement, Acosta agreed that prosecutors would "not institute any criminal charges against any potential co-conspirators of Epstein" and would "suspend" the grand jury investigation. That provision suggests Epstein was seeking to protect others beyond himself.
Epstein could have co-conspirators
It is unclear what has prompted the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York to file charges after the passage of so much time, but it is not bound by any promises made by another U.S. Attorney's Office. Epstein was never charged under federal law in Florida, and so no jeopardy has attached for double jeopardy purposes. SDNY prosecutors were able to capture the conduct that occurred in Florida by using a conspiracy charge alleging that this part of the conspiracy occurred in New York. So long as any part of a conspiracy occurs in a particular district, the crime of conspiracy may be charged in that district, even if other parts of the conspiracy occurred elsewhere. Perhaps prosecutors simply want to vindicate the rights of victims who were mistreated in Florida. Or perhaps prosecutors have bigger targets than Epstein in mind.
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If Epstein were protecting any potential co-conspirators during his negotiations with Acosta, the public corruption prosecutors in SDNY now have the leverage to find out.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Follow her on Twitter: @barbmcquade
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Do charges against Jeffrey Epstein signal 'bigger targets'?