Lead U.S. prosecutor in ’08 Epstein case — who sources say wanted to charge him — resigns

A. Marie Villafaña, the lead federal prosecutor who helped negotiate a controversial plea deal for accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, has submitted her resignation to the Justice Department, the Miami Herald has learned.

Her departure comes amid a federal probe into the role she and other federal prosecutors, including her former boss, Alexander Acosta, had in sidelining a 53-page indictment against the wealthy New York investor in favor of a state plea to minor prostitution charges in 2008. Epstein, 66, was accused of molesting dozens of underage girls, most of them 14 to 16 years old, at his Palm Beach mansion more than a decade ago. He is now facing federal sex trafficking charges involving minors brought against him last month by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.

Marie Villafan_fitted.jpeg
As an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida. Marie Villafaña was the lead federal prosecutor on the Jeffrey Epstein case. The office chose not to prosecute. LinkedIn

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is examining whether Acosta, who resigned his cabinet post as secretary of labor last month — and other U.S. prosecutors involved in the 2007-2008 case — committed misconduct in negotiating the secret pact with Epstein. A federal judge in February ruled that the prior deal was illegally negotiated because Epstein and federal prosecutors concealed it from his victims in violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

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The Herald has learned that several people involved in the Epstein case have been questioned by the Justice Department in recent weeks as part of its ongoing OPR investigation.

Jonathan Biran, Villafaña’s lawyer, confirmed her resignation Thursday, noting that she has long planned to transition to a legal career in healthcare, and now plans to join the federal Department of Health and Human Services. In recent years, she has handled a number of healthcare fraud cases in South Florida.

Villafaña, 51, has worked in the Southern District of Florida, mostly based in West Palm Beach, for the past 18 years. She is the last member of the federal prosecution team that handled Epstein’s case in 2008 still employed by the Department of Justice. The other members of the team, including Acosta, left in the years after Epstein’s case was closed.

Acosta, appointed labor secretary by President Trump in 2017, stepped down July 12, six days after Epstein was arrested on new sex trafficking charges in New York. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, in announcing the indictment last month, dealt a rebuke to Florida-based prosecutors who dropped the federal case against Epstein.

“While the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, it is still profoundly important to the many alleged victims, now young women. They deserve their day in court and we are proud to be standing up for them by bringing this indictment,’’ Berman said at a July 8 news conference.

Epstein was denied bail and remains jailed in Manhattan pending his trial, tentatively set for next June.

On Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a criminal investigation into the state’s handling of the Epstein case, from his sentencing in 2008 to his incarceration and probation in 2009. In 2006, former Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer declined to prosecute Epstein on serious sex charges, which led to the U.S. Attorney and FBI taking over the case in 2007.

Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s role in the case is also under scrutiny since under his watch he permitted Epstein liberal work release privileges that allowed the multimillionaire to be chauffeured by his valet from the jail to his office in West Palm Beach six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Even when Epstein was in his cell at night, sheriff’s deputies reportedly allowed him to keep his door open.

The Justice Department’s probe, by its Office of Professional Responsibility, is similar to a police department’s internal affairs inquiry, focusing on possible misconduct or policy violations by federal prosecutors. It’s not clear what impact, if any, Villafaña’s resignation will have on the investigation.

Michael R. Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, said it’s unlikely that Villafaña’s departure will derail OPR’s probe.

“There is no reason that they couldn’t continue the investigation, especially in a case like this where there is broad public interest in knowing what happened,’’ said Bromwich, a former inspector general for the Justice Department.

He added that it’s important for the department to make its findings public given that so much secrecy has surrounded the Epstein case.

Jeffrey Epstein was arrested Saturday, July 6, 2019, when he arrived at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey on his private jet.

“OPR’s tradition is to keep things bottled up in the department and to put very few of their reports in the public domain,’’ Bromwich said. “This time, it should be transparent.’’

The case has raised fundamental questions about whether well-connected, wealthy people wield influence over prosecutors and others in the justice system. Epstein had a wide circle of powerful friends, including former President Bill Clinton, President Donald Trump, Prince Andrew and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Villafaña has never spoken publicly about the case. Sources close to her have said that she disagreed with Acosta’s decision granting Epstein and others involved in his activities immunity from federal charges.

Those close to Villafaña said that in the end, she was a loyal career prosecutor who toed the line of her boss while focusing her efforts on a provision in Epstein’s agreement that forced him to pay restitution to his victims. At the time of the deal, the FBI had identified 34 underage victims, most of them middle and high school girls who came from underprivileged backgrounds.

Epstein employed a number of people to help him schedule girls on a rotating basis to come to his Palm Beach home on the pretext that he would pay them to give him massages. The girls, however, told Palm Beach police that they were pressured to perform sex acts with him and with adult women. They were paid $200 to $300, and could earn more money if they brought friends, which many of them did, police documents show.

In November, the Herald published a series of articles, Perversion of Justice, revealing that Epstein may have sexually abused or molested more than 100 girls in Palm Beach alone. Court records and FBI documents also showed that at the time his case was settled in Florida the FBI had received tips that there were other victims in New York, New Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Epstein owns homes.

Recently released documents revealed that Villafaña strenuously objected to Epstein’s work release, and wrote a letter to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office in December 2008 pointing out that the crimes he committed were not accurately reflected in his work release paperwork and that those records contained “omissions” that should have disqualified him for the program.

She was overruled, however, and Epstein continued his work release, ultimately serving 13 months before being released in 2009. One woman has since come forward to say she was hired to perform a sex act on Epstein in his office while he was on work release.

Biran said Villafaña’s resignation had nothing to do with the Epstein matter, and that she has recently completed a two-year training program on healthcare compliance. Most of her career has been spent advocating for the rights of victims, and she has received numerous awards for her work, he added.

“Ms. Villafaña is confident that, when DOJ’s internal investigation has been concluded, the department will find that she acted properly in all respects as the lead prosecutor in the federal investigation of Jeffrey Epstein,’’ Biran said.

Supporters said she has been a tireless prosecutor who rarely gives up a fight.

“If she was going to leave because of this case, she would have left a long time ago,’’ said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein, who supervised Villafaña early in her career.

“My experience with her is she digs in her teeth and doesn’t give up. She tries to uphold what all good prosecutors do, and that is to see that justice is served.’’

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