Florida

Deflecting blame, Acosta pointed finger at others. Why they may have some explaining to do

On Oct 23, 2007, as federal prosecutors in South Florida were in the midst of tense negotiations to finalize a plea deal with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, a senior prosecutor in their office was quietly laying out plans to leave the U.S. attorney’s office after 11 years.

On that date, as emails were flying between Epstein’s lawyers and federal prosecutors, Bruce E. Reinhart, now a federal magistrate, opened a limited liability company in Florida that established what would become his new criminal defense practice.

The stated address, according to Florida state corporate records: 250 South Australian Ave., Suite 1400. It was the same location, and identical suite number, as that of Epstein’s lead attorney, Jack Goldberger.

By the end of the year, Reinhart had resigned his post in the Southern District of Florida. Within days, on Jan. 2, 2008, he was hired to represent several of Epstein’s accused accomplices who would later, like Epstein, receive federal immunity for allegedly trafficking underage girls.

Reinhart’s defection was one of many highly unusual turns that the Epstein case took 12 years ago, moves that could merit examination as the multimillionaire’s controversial non-prosecution agreement is dissected in the wake of his arrest last week on sex trafficking charges.

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Bruce Reinhart went from the U.S. attorney’s office that was working on a prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein to private practice, representing some of those who allegedly assisted the Palm Beach multimillionaire in his sexual pyramid scheme.

There have long been questions raised about the level of influence Epstein and his powerhouse legal team may have exerted over federal and state prosecutors as well as Palm Beach’s County’s sheriff, Ric Bradshaw.

Alexander Acosta, the former top prosecutor of the Epstein case in 2007-2008, resigned on Friday as U.S. secretary of labor, saying the overwhelming media scrutiny he has faced since Epstein’s arrest, part of the fallout from the Miami Herald’s investigative series Perversion of Justice, had become too big a distraction to overcome.

At the same time Friday, authorities in New York revealed that as recently as December 2018, Epstein was wiring money to people who had potentially damaging information about his alleged sex trafficking enterprise. New York U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said the transactions of hundreds of thousands of dollars, made just days after the Miami Herald ran its series, show that the accused sex trafficker was still trying to use his money to leverage witnesses.

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President Donald Trump listens July 12, 2019, as Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta discusses his exit from the president’s Cabinet. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI AFP/Getty Images

Bradley Edwards, one of the lawyers who represents Epstein’s victims, said it’s now time for Acosta and others involved in the case to explain how and why they gave Epstein and others immunity from such serious charges without informing his victims that they were disposing of the case.

“What we need now is for Alex Acosta to finally sit down with us and explain what happened, and for others involved in the investigation to also talk,’’ Edwards said.

At an hourlong news conference Wednesday, Acosta defended his handling of the case and cast blame in various directions, including at the state attorney who had been poised to charge Epstein with a misdemeanor, at the sheriff who gave him liberal work release and at unnamed staff members under his own supervision.

In 2007-2008, Acosta’s team had prepared a 53-page indictment against Epstein, citing nearly three dozen underage girls, mostly 13 to 16, who were molested by the wealthy money manager. Acosta, however, agreed to shelve the indictment, and instead allow Epstein to plead guilty to two felony prostitution charges in state court. Epstein’s lawyers, who in addition to Goldberger were Alan Dershowitz, Roy Black, Kenneth Starr, Guy Lewis and Jay Lefkowitz, demanded that the deal be sealed and kept secret from Epstein’s victims. Acosta acquiesced, emails show, even though victim notification was required under federal law.

In January, the Justice Department announced it had opened a probe into whether there was possible misconduct by prosecutors in the case. The investigation, by DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, remains pending. The DOJ inquiry could bump up against the New York investigation, which is being led by the Southern District of New York’s public corruption unit. Berman downplayed significance of the the unit’s involvement, cautioning reporters not to read too much into it, but some experienced federal investigators found it curious.

“The fact that the public corruption unit is involved suggests to me that this goes beyond a typical crimes-against-children or sex-trafficking case. Typically, they don’t get involved in something like this unless it involves looking at people who are in a position of public trust,’’ said James A. Gagliano, a 25-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Herald’s series examined a number of people whose actions were questioned by lawyers representing Epstein’s victims. Besides Acosta, two other prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida were named in court documents connected to a civil lawsuit filed by two Epstein victims in 2008.

One of them was Palm Beach federal magistrate Reinhart. In a 2011 sworn affidavit submitted in the civil case, Reinhart denied he did anything unethical or improper. He asserted, under the penalty of perjury, that he was not part of the team involved in Epstein’s investigation and therefore was not privy to any confidential information about the case.

But two years later, Reinhart’s former supervisors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a court paper contradicting him, saying that “while Bruce E. Reinhart was an assistant U.S. attorney, he learned confidential, non-public information about the Epstein matter.’’

In response to a request for comment from the Herald last year, Reinhart said that he doesn’t recall learning anything about Epstein’s criminal case.

“Even assuming I had participated ‘personally and substantially’ in the Epstein investigation [which I did not], the relevant Department of Justice regulations only prohibited me from communicating with, or appearing before, the United States on behalf of Mr. Epstein,’’ he said in an email, noting that while he represented a number of Epstein’s employees, he did not represent Epstein. He declined to say whether he was paid by Epstein for representing several of Epstein’s accused co-conspirators, including Sarah Kellen, Epstein’s assistant in Palm Beach. Kellen, whose subsequent married name is Vickers, allegedly scheduled underage girls to visit Epstein three and four times a day, court and police records show.

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Once a friend of presidents, the ultra-rich and the elite of Wall Street’s bankers — plus a major benefactor to Harvard University — Jeffrey Epstein handled portfolios estimated to be worth over $15 billion. Then he became ensnared in a scandal involving the sexual abuse of underage girls. He is seen here, pre-scandal, at left, in conversation with Alan Dershowitz, one of America’s best-known legal experts and a Harvard Law professor emeritus, at a Cambridge event. Dershowitz became a key member of Epstein’s legal team. Rick Friedman Corbis via Getty Images

Another federal prosecutor who has been named in the court records is Matthew I. Menchel, who was in charge of the office’s criminal division, and was copied on some of the emails and other correspondence that passed between prosecutors handling the case. Edwards, who drew up the civil suit seeking to invalidate Epstein’s plea agreement, filed a sworn affidavit in 2013 alleging that the Justice Department knew that Menchel had some sort of relationship with Epstein.

“The government admits that it has information about a personal or business relationship between Jeffrey Epstein and another prosecutor involved in the Epstein case, Matthew Menchel,’’ Edwards wrote in his affidavit.

Edwards was asking the judge in the case, Kenneth A. Marra, to demand the government disclose the nature of that relationship so that Epstein’s victims could evaluate whether there was anything improper about Menchel’s involvement.

“In my experience, it is highly unusual for federal prosecutors to work on a case prosecuting someone (such as Jeffrey Epstein) and then, shortly thereafter, leave the employment of the federal government and enter into a business relationship with the person who was being prosecuted.’’

Menchel, now a trial attorney with the Miami law firm Kobre & Kim, declined to comment for this report.

“I can’t comment on the advice of counsel because there is an open OPR investigation,’’ Menchel said Saturday.

Barry Krischer, the Palm Beach state attorney who had initial jurisdiction over the case in 2006 before the FBI took over, has responded only recently to criticism. Acosta, at his Wednesday news conference, seemed to put blame on Krischer for his apparent attempt to let Epstein off the hook with just a misdemeanor.

It was only after then-Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter wrote a public letter asking that Krischer recuse himself from the case that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI assumed jurisdiction of the Epstein matter, records show.

Among the issues raised by Palm Beach police investigators is why Krischer’s office presented only one victim to the state grand jury that heard testimony, when Palm Beach police, by that time, had identified multiple girls who were molested by Epstein.

Another concern: When police raided Epstein’s Palm Beach estate, they found all his computers had been removed, suggesting that someone in Krischer’s office had tipped off Epstein about the search warrants.

Janusz Banasiak, a butler for Epstein, testified in a civil deposition years later that one of Epstein’s assistants, Adriana Mucinska Ross, and another unidentified man were instructed in advance of the arrival of Palm Beach police to remove the multiple computers in the house. Krischer never issued a subpoena for the computers, even though it was known they were in the hands of Epstein’s attorneys by that time, the lead detective, Joseph Recarey, told the Herald.

Krischer has not responded to requests from the Miami Herald for comment about the case. But he did issue a statement in response to Acosta’s recollection of events, saying “Mr. Acosta should not be allowed to rewrite history.’’

In the years following the Florida FBI probe, several lawyers who represented Epstein’s victims, as well as a private investigator, filed complaints with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, claiming that Epstein’s case may have gone off the rails because he improperly influenced federal prosecutors.

One of those complaints, filed by Paul Cassell, a former federal judge in Utah who represents Epstein’s victims, ended up in the hands of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico. Reinhart said that the complaint, which alleged Reinhart committed perjury in his affidavit, was fully investigated, “and they declined to pursue the matter,’’ Reinhart said.

The Miami Herald submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the investigation, but the Justice Department denied the request, so it’s not clear what the investigation entailed.

Gagliano said it’s common for federal prosecutors to go into the private sector after serving in the Justice Department, where they make modest salaries. Since Reinhart wasn’t assigned the case, he could successfully argue that he wasn’t privy to anything other than banter over the water cooler, said Gagliano, who is also a CNN law enforcement analyst.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Local Reporting Makes a Difference

In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.

Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.

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“But the bottom line is, in this scenario, I would recuse myself from any cases that my office handled. It may not be unethical but there is a perception of impropriety,’’ Gagliano said.

Besides Krischer, Lanna Belohlavek, the lead assistant state prosecutor who oversaw Epstein’s sentencing in June 2008, has been accused of leading the sentencing judge, Deborah Dale Pucillo, to believe that Epstein’s crimes involved only “several’’ victims, and that those victims had been notified and were satisfied with the plea arrangement.

That was not the case, because several of the victims’ lawyers, including Robert C. Josefsberg — who represented the woman whose case was at the heart of the state charges that were brought — told the Herald that they were never notified about Epstein’s plea deal or sentencing.

In February, Judge Marra ruled that the 2008 deal was illegal, finding that the victims were not only kept in the dark, but they were misled by prosecutors in violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

Belohlavek, who no longer works for the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office, informed a Herald reporter through an email from her employer, the state attorney’s office for Southwest Florida, that she would not be commenting on the case.

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Then there’s Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who gave Epstein work release even though his own department’s policy explicitly bans sex offenders from getting work release. Bradhaw has declined to talk to the Miami Herald.

But interviewed earlier this year on SunDial, a local radio program, Bradshaw claimed that Epstein was not a sex offender when he was given work release.

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When he was state attorney for Palm Beach County, Barry Krischer handled the local prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein. That handling has been sharply criticized as too lenient.

However, the nature of his charges was well known and records obtained by the Herald show that Epstein signed documents at his sentencing acknowledging that he was a sex offender and outlining all the requirements that go with being a convicted sex offender.

In the wide-raging interview about various sheriff’s department issues on Miami’s WLRN in April, Bradshaw was asked about his department’s decision to allow Epstein to leave the county jail six days a week. Epstein’s private driver would pick him up and take him to an office he had set up in downtown West Palm Beach, in the same group of suites as his lawyer, Goldberger. Epstein spent up to 10 hours a day at the office with a sheriff’s deputy stationed outside, records show.

“All we did was house him,’’ Bradshaw told Luis Hernandez, host of Sundial. “He met the criteria for work release. He was not adjudicated as a violent sex offender, he wasn’t even adjudicated as a sex offender.’’

Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.

A previous version of this story misspelled attorney Roy Black’s name.

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