Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest on federal charges of sex trafficking minors has all the features of a tabloid extravaganza: money, sex, power, and serious crimes. No one deserves the notoriety more. The billionaire financier was already convicted of similar crimes in 2008 and received a very light sentence. Epstein’s plea bargain ended the earlier investigation before any of his friends were implicated. That won’t happen again. The floodlights are on this one.
In 2008, the prosecution negotiated the plea deal while it kept victims in the dark. The underage girls Epstein exploited were not notified in advance about the agreement or allowed to object. A federal judge recently ruled the case was mishandled and the victims should have been heard.
The old case resonates today, not only because the new charges echo the old ones but because the US attorney in charge then, Alex Acosta, is now secretary of labor. The unusual deal had to be approved in Washington, though it is still unclear which Department of Justice officials gave it the green light or why. We’ll undoubtedly learn more about the old case as the new one unfolds.
One thing is certain about the new charges. They will not proceed quietly through the courts, away from inquiring eyes. This time, they are front-page news. The DoJ has already devoted serious attention to them, and they won’t be interested in a backroom deal. The press will be interested, too. The more big names and juicy details, the better.
Some questions are obvious — and demand answers. The most compelling one about the 2008 case is ‘why did Epstein get such kid gloves treatment?’ The most obvious one about the 2019 case is ‘why the hell did it take so long?’ Wasn’t it common knowledge among Manhattan’s rich and famous that Epstein was constantly flying young women (some allegedly underage) to his mansion in Palm Beach and his island hideaway? Didn’t people call the Caribbean estate ‘orgy island‘? Wasn’t his private jet known as ‘The Lolita Express’? I’m not saying these should have been hints, but…
As blogger David Burge put it, ‘It’s always the billionaire convicted pedo with private Lolita Express jets to his own orgy island that you least expect.’ Droll but accurate. How did the Department of Justice manage to miss this ongoing scandal for years?
The likely answer is that Epstein has lots of rich and powerful friends. As we say in Chicago, ‘He knows a guy who knows a guy.’ He must have known lots of guys. They were passengers on his planes, visitors at his estates.
None of those guys work at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton. They own DunderCorp or run a hedge fund, MifflinFutures. They have money and power. Some have prominent names. That does not mean they participated in any illegal acts. That remains to be seen. It does mean, though, that some prominent names could emerge and, when they do, they will need to explain what they knew and what they did. When they do, you can bet they will be surrounded by high-priced lawyers and ‘reputation management’ specialists.
This nexus of power, money, and influence is why this scandal is likely to widen. Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Christine, herself a Democratic National Committee official, said as much. ‘It is quite likely that some of our faves are implicated,’ she tweeted. She didn’t mention names, but an obvious one is Bill Clinton, who took more than two dozen flights with Epstein and didn’t always bring his Secret Service detail along.
We will know much more when the indictments are revealed and the investigative reporters file their stories. Of course, everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But that doesn’t mean we have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to this nasty business, for which Epstein was convicted once before.
The underage victims of sexual violence deserve justice. They also deserve an explanation of how this went without investigation and unpunished for so long.
The American people deserve that explanation, too, for two reasons: first, because the alleged crimes are so heinous, and, second, because the rich and powerful should face the same scrutiny and the same consequences as everyone else.
America’s justice system was never meant to have seats in first class and coach. That, alas, is not just a question about Jeffrey Epstein and ‘orgy island.’ Its jagged shadow looms over all American politics.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security.