Little by little, we’re learning what Jeffrey Epstein and his allies in politics, law, and business have tried to cover up and downplay for decades. Last year, the Miami Herald identified more than 80 possible victims of the financier’s alleged sexual abuse and reported on how then–U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta, the current secretary of labor, got Epstein a cushy plea deal. (After pleading guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution from a minor, Epstein went to jail for 13 months but was allowed to go on “work release” to his office for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.) On Saturday, Epstein was arrested on charges of child sex trafficking and abusing dozens of underage girls. After Epstein’s arrest, journalist Vicky Ward wrote that Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter had removed a series of sexual abuse allegations that she’d included in an Epstein profile she’d written for the magazine in 2003. (Carter responded by saying those allegations were removed because they “did not meet our legal and editorial standards.”)
By all accounts, there was, and is, an influential and well-organized network of men that has kept Epstein out of prison and the particulars of his alleged sex-trafficking enterprise out of the news. It’s taken an equally tenacious legal operation to keep the case against him alive.
“There’s an unspoken hero in this whole story,” Ward said in an interview with Slate’s Mary Harris earlier this week. She was speaking of Bradley Edwards, the Florida attorney who has represented a number of Epstein accusers for many years. After Acosta struck a nonprosecution agreement with the alleged child sex trafficker, Edwards sued, claiming that Acosta had violated the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act by keeping the agreement secret from the 36 underage victims whom prosecutors had identified. In February, 11 years after Edwards filed suit, a judge finally ruled that Acosta and his fellow prosecutors did indeed break federal law by granting Epstein and his alleged accomplices immunity behind the victims’ backs. Two of Epstein’s victims, known as Jane Doe No. 1 and Jane Doe No. 2, have since asked the judge for a series of remedies: financial recompense, a written apology from and meetings with the prosecutors who gave Epstein the sweetheart deal, and trainings to teach federal prosecutors in Florida how to support crime victims. They are also asking the court to partially or totally overturn Epstein’s plea deal. All of these requests are still pending.
For Edwards, who once told Law.com that he likes to live in a client’s home for a few days before trial to get a sense of their daily struggles, the fight to bring Epstein to justice has been drawn out, personal, and incredibly tangled. A year after he began representing Epstein’s alleged victims, Epstein sued Edwards for civil racketeering, accusing him of lying about Epstein’s sexual abuse to bring more money into his firm. (One of the partners at Edwards’ firm got a 50-year sentence for running a Ponzi scheme.) Epstein later dropped those charges. But Edwards countersued for malicious prosecution, saying Epstein had brought the case to intimidate him and his clients. That suit allowed Edwards to gather information on Epstein. For a while, it looked like Epstein’s accusers would be able to testify in court about their alleged exploitation, using Edwards’ suit as a back door into the courtroom after Acosta’s plea deal denied them the chance to tell their stories under oath. But Epstein and Edwards settled for an undisclosed sum in December, just before the trial was to begin.
The settlement allows Edwards to continue arguing for the remedies Epstein’s victims proposed: specifically, the reversal of the nonprosecution agreement Acosta made more than a decade ago. Edwards explained that he settled with Epstein because he, or his clients, wanted their allegations to be heard in a federal court on the topic of Acosta’s secret plea deal, not in a state court on the topic of malicious prosecution. “They’re willing to talk,” Edwards said. “They want to share their stories. This was part of their healing.”
This proxy fight between Epstein and Edwards offers a glimpse into the mechanisms abusers can use to shield themselves from accountability. Abusers harass and shame in expanding concentric circles. First, their victims are made to believe they desired and deserved the abuse and that no one will believe them. Next, they target the victims’ families. And if that doesn’t work, abusers often go after the victims’ legal representatives or journalistic confidants. (Recall the undercover agents Harvey Weinstein hired to gain the confidence of his accusers and the reporters they spoke to.) Wealthy and powerful abusers aren’t just protecting themselves when they throw their weight around. They’re creating the impression that it’s not worth waging a public battle against any wealthy or powerful abuser: Take the settlement, because the time and money and personal strife won’t be worth it. Acosta, too, says he was intimidated by Epstein’s legal team, and that’s why he let them set the terms of Epstein’s 13-month jail stint. Whether or not you believe him, the mere fact that a federal prosecutor is arguing that he was scared into submission makes it clear what less-connected victims and attorneys are up against.
A few years ago, Edwards settled another personal Epstein-related suit, this time against legal luminary Alan Dershowitz. In sworn statements, one of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Giuffre, alleged that Dershowitz, who was part of Epstein’s legal team, had raped her when she was a minor. (Giuffre maintains that Epstein held her as a sex slave and forced her to have sex with Dershowitz. Dershowitz denies Giuffre’s allegations.) In media appearances, Dershowitz accused Edwards and another attorney of unethical conduct and demanded they be disbarred for spreading what Dershowitz said were Giuffre’s false allegations. That prompted Edwards to sue Dershowitz for defamation, and Dershowitz sued right back—a battle of lawsuits over who was lying about whom. They settled in 2016. Edwards also filed a defamation suit on behalf of Giuffre against Ghislaine Maxwell, a woman Giuffre and others have accused of recruiting and trafficking girls for Epstein. Maxwell had accused Giuffre of lying, which Edwards claimed was a defamation of Giuffre’s character. They settled in 2017. Giuffre, meanwhile, sued Dershowitz for defamation, alleging that he made “false and malicious defamatory statements” about her. That suit is still ongoing.
After setting his malicious prosecution suit against Epstein in December, Edwards said the state-level case would’ve been a “distraction” from his clients’ goal: to expose Epstein’s alleged crimes and hold him accountable for the abuse he allegedly inflicted on dozens, if not hundreds, of girls and young women. But it’s thanks in part to the perseverance of both Edwards and Epstein’s accusers that the case against Acosta, who let Epstein off the hook on federal sex-trafficking charges, stayed open long enough to shadow the former U.S. attorney as he took a role in Trump’s Cabinet. In the coming weeks, the secretary of labor will likely be forced to answer for his accommodating treatment of the alleged child trafficker before a congressional panel.
Julie Brown, the Miami Herald reporter who published last year’s series on Epstein, also deserves credit for keeping the pressure on Epstein and Acosta. “Despite the fact that this was sort of in broad daylight,” Ward said of Edwards’ suit accusing Acosta of breaking federal law, “what’s really amazing is there was still not really any public outrage.” It wasn’t until some of Epstein’s alleged victims spoke to Brown, who also reported out how Acosta and other prosecutors bent the rules to keep Epstein’s crimes out of the news, that political leaders started speaking out about Epstein’s deal.
It took a network of people putting their own personal, financial, and sexual interests over the safety and dignity of girls to keep Epstein’s alleged child-abuse operation running. It will take a network that’s just as substantial to uncover the extent of Epstein’s possible crimes. It’s perverse, but there’s a direct relationship between the magnitude of a system of abuse and the magnitude of the effort required to end it. The fact that so many people appear to have known about and participated in Epstein’s alleged child-trafficking enterprise has not been a liability for him; indeed, it has been his foremost strength.
But the forces working against Epstein are beginning to coalesce into something larger. It’s not just the victims and their stories or Edwards and his lawsuits anymore. It’s also Ward, and her memories of the allegations she heard that never got published. It’s an ongoing congressional inquiry. It’s New York prosecutors who finally decided to do their jobs. It’s #MeToo, and the way it shifted sexual abuse from the gossip columns to the front page, making room for long-form reporting about sexual exploitation committed by famous men. The imbalance of power Epstein and his ilk have relied upon hasn’t been reversed, but it’s certainly starting to shift.