A curious detail appears in the press release announcing the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell on charges of conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse minors.
On Thursday, Audrey Strauss, the newly appointed acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that Maxwell had been charged in a six-count indictment accusing her of enticing and transporting a minor to travel to engage in criminal sexual activity, conspiracy to commit those offenses and perjury in connection with a sworn deposition.
The charges were not a surprise in light of comments by Strauss’s predecessor, Geoffrey S. Berman, last year after Epstein died of an apparent suicide in jail. Berman pledged to the victims of Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking crimes that “our investigation of the conduct charged in the Indictment—which included a conspiracy count—remains ongoing.”
The unusual part of Strauss’s announcement is that the case is assigned to the office’s Public Corruption Unit. The case against Epstein had also been assigned to this unit, which typically focuses on crimes committed by government officials, employees and contractors. Elie Honig, a former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, told Law and Crime that sex trafficking cases are typically handled out of the office’s Violent and Organized Crime unit.
So why would this case be assigned to the Public Corruption Unit? Prosecutors assigned to such a unit are trained and experienced in handling some of the nuanced issues that arise when government officials are targets of investigations. Charges often involve sophisticated bribery, extortion or fraud schemes in which the parties deliberately speak in coded language to maintain plausible deniability.
The case law is replete with gray areas in which quid pro quo arrangements breaching public trust are spun as mere horse-trading politics. Public officials hire top lawyers, and, as natural risk-takers with much to lose, are less inclined to plead guilty than other defendants. As a result, public corruption prosecutors must have the skill set to not only investigate a complex case but also to take it to trial.
Maxwell is not herself a public official, but maybe she is not the last to be indicted in this case. The assignment of her case to the Public Corruption Unit suggests that the investigation may touch on subjects who are current or former government officials. Facing a potentially lengthy prison sentence if she is convicted, Maxwell has a strong incentive to cooperate with prosecutors by providing substantial assistance in the investigation and prosecution of others in exchange for a recommendation of leniency. Against whom might she be able to testify?
Let’s start with the origins of the case in the Southern District of Florida. Last year Alex Acosta resigned as U.S. Labor Secretary over his involvement in the case when he served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2008. He negotiated a deal with Epstein that allowed him to plead guilty to a single count of soliciting prostitution and serve a 13-month state prison, most of it at his own office on work release.
The agreement also included provisions not to charge some of Epstein’s employees or “any potential co-conspirators,” highly unusual language that releases from criminal exposure even defendants whose identities and conduct are unknown. When he negotiated the deal, Acosta ignored the normal practice of notifying the victims. Although no criminal allegations have been filed against Acosta, if the investigation were to include examination of his conduct, that could explain the involvement of the Public Corruption Unit.
In addition, the reference to “potential co-conspirators” suggests that there may have been other people who assisted Epstein in recruiting, grooming or transporting underage girls to engage in criminal sexual activity. This description could also include anyone who engaged in sexual conduct with the underage girls. It is a crime to knowingly patronize a person under the age of 18 to engage in a commercial sex act.
Because Acosta’s non-prosecution deal bound only the Southern District of Florida, the Southern District of New York is free to charge any of Epstein’s co-conspirators. Again, the assignment of the case to the Public Corruption Unit raises a fair inference that these subjects could be current or former government officials. The charges against Maxwell allege that her crimes occurred in New York, Florida and London. Anyone who traveled with Epstein to these locations or who visited him there and engaged in commercial sex acts with girls they knew to be under 18 could be charged with a federal offense.
Epstein was friends with many prominent people, including former President Bill Clinton and President Donald Trump, who once said of Epstein, “It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” While Clinton and Trump would both qualify as public officials, their friendships with Epstein alone are insufficient to merit investigation without articulable factual allegations of criminal conduct.
Such an allegation has been made about Britain’s Prince Andrew, whom the Southern District of New York has sought to interview. One of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, has accused Prince Andrew of having sex with her when she was 17. In June, Berman issued a statement that the British royal had not been cooperative with his prosecutors.
Berman stated that Prince Andrew was seeking to “falsely portray himself to the public as eager and willing to cooperate with the investigation into Epstein, even though the Prince has not given an interview to federal authorities, has repeatedly declined our request to schedule such an interview. . . If Prince Andrew is, in fact, serious about cooperating with the ongoing federal investigation, our doors remain open, and we await word of when we should expect him.” Prince Andrew, whether as witness, subject or target, would certainly qualify as a public official such that assignment of the case to the Public Corruption Unit would make sense.
In the coming months, we will see movement on the Maxwell case, as she either goes to trial, pleads guilty or otherwise resolves her case. We may also see additional charges against others who assisted Epstein or who patronized the girls he abused. The prosecutors seem to be preparing for the possibility of defendants whose names are known to the public.