NEW YORK: Jeffrey Epstein kept embarrassing details of his sexual encounters out of the public eye more than a decade ago by wearing down his accusers with high-pressure litigation tactics. He settled the claims, some for US$1 million or more, and the women stayed silent.
That won’t work this time.
Now that Epstein is facing new federal charges of sex trafficking minors, the women are helping prosecutors build their case. That could produce new accounts from dozens of accusers who say Epstein, 66, assaulted them when they were teenagers.
This week they started making their way to federal court in Manhattan, where two accusers faced Epstein directly for the first time in public.
“I was sexually abused by Jeffrey Epstein starting at the age of 14,” Courtney Wild said in court on Monday, standing just feet from the disgraced money manager. Wild was among the women who reached secret settlements with Epstein.
Wild’s appearance in court underscored how Epstein, who is locked up and facing 45 years in prison, no longer controls the legal process as he did when facing civil lawsuits a decade ago.
That was well before the national reckoning over sexual misconduct by the rich and powerful.
“Epstein has been able to traumatise victims in the system and get benefits that others were not entitled to because the cases were not in the national spotlight,” said Utah attorney Paul Cassell, who has litigated against him for more than a decade.
Some of Epstein’s civil settlements exceeded US$1 million, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Three were for a total of US$5.5 million, court records show. The total amount of Epstein’s civil payments is unknown, but it’s likely a small fraction of the US$559 million that prosecutors say Epstein has claimed as his net worth.
The plaintiffs claimed he lured teenage girls to his Palm Beach mansion, where he coerced them into sex, paid them and asked them to bring him other girls.
None of the suits went to trial, and Epstein was allowed to avoid federal prosecution by admitting to two state prostitution charges and serving 13 months in jail.
A federal judge ruled in February that the Justice Department broke the law by making that deal without consulting the accusers.
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who was the lead federal prosecutor in Florida, said this week that he would resign because of renewed public fury over the case.
In the New York case, by contrast, Wild and other accusers are certain to have a strong voice as prosecutors try to prove that Epstein is guilty of sex trafficking and conspiracy for conduct that took place from 2002 to 2005.
A conviction could hurt him in any new civil lawsuits because the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is higher.
Since Epstein’s July 6 arrest, many women have come forward to the FBI with new assault claims. In a detailed series about Epstein, the Miami Herald said it had identified 80 accusers.
“The landscape is changing dramatically for him right now,” said Sigrid McCawley, a lawyer at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP representing women who claim they were assaulted by Epstein.
“The individuals that I have spoken to who are victims are very comforted that he is behind bars. That has sent a message that they have some level of protection.”
In the civil cases, Epstein’s lawyers and investigators delved deeply into intimate details of the lives of the girls, including many who were economically disadvantaged. They interviewed friends, neighbours and employers in ways that their lawyers said was abusive.
In depositions, Epstein’s lawyers grilled them about their sex lives, drug use and criminal records.
One accuser was asked about how she felt about her history of abortions.
“Does it give you any, any emotional pain that you aborted three fetuses?” asked an Epstein lawyer, Mark Luttier.
“Wouldn’t you agree with me that aborting three fetuses would be far more traumatic than giving a man a massage in the nude?”
Epstein’s publicist gave stories to the news media “impugning the credibility of the victims” and asserting that their “allegations of abuse were made solely to extract money” from the financier, prosecutors said in a 2009 court filing.
More than two dozen lawsuits were ultimately resolved in private settlements after Epstein signed a non-prosecution agreement in 2008 that allowed him and four accomplices to avoid federal charges.
Epstein sidestepped the kind of questioning his accusers faced. Instead, he repeatedly declined to answer questions in depositions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Now, Epstein wants his freedom pending trial. Prosecutors have urged US District Judge Richard Berman to keep him detained, arguing he’s a danger to the community and a risk to flee.
Epstein’s lawyers say he deserves bail and argue he’s led a spotless life for the last 14 years. They say Epstein is being prosecuted a second time for acts that ended in 2005 and were resolved in the federal non-prosecution agreement.
Berman said he would rule on Thursday.
Cassell, the Utah lawyer, said Epstein faces many more hurdles in the criminal system than he did in the civil lawsuits. His aggressive tactics with victims before settling was part of a carrot-and-stick approach to prevent facts from coming out at trial, Cassell said.
He no longer has that advantage.
“This was not a whodunit or the wrong man being charged,” Cassell said. “All of this was in the service not of truth-seeking but of harassment and intimidation. That’s all clearer in hindsight.”