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OPINION

Lurid case reinforces what wealth can do

By DAVID VON DREHLE | The Washington Post | Published: December 5, 2018

If I ask you the Golden Rule, you’ll likely answer: Treat others as you wish to be treated; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But there is another version, the one you’re liable to hear around courthouses, in prisons and in other precincts where the rubber of justice meets the road of inequality. It goes like this: Those with the gold make the rules.

I thought of that as I read an investigative series by reporter Julie K. Brown, of the Miami Herald. In three outrage-inducing chapters, Brown documents the whitewash of an alleged global conspiracy to traffic underage girls for sexual exploitation. Though she identified more than 80 likely victims and cited evidence that the actual number could be in the hundreds, the registered sex offender at the center of the conspiracy was allowed — under a furtive plea deal — to serve just 13 months in country club conditions, tooling around Palm Beach by day and bunking at night in a private suite at the Palm Beach County jail.

Evidently, it pays to be rich.

The outlines of this story have been known for years. Jeffrey Epstein, a fantastically wealthy creep, ran afoul of the Palm Beach police in 2005 after the parents of a 14-year-old girl reported that he paid their daughter to strip and massage his naked body while he pleasured himself. Investigators soon found evidence — eyewitness testimony and documents — indicating that troubled girls by the dozens were recruited for molestation and rape. The Herald series illuminates the perversion of justice that allowed the perversion of Epstein to go so lightly punished.

Epstein’s wealth — the origins of which are a bit murky — assembled an all-star team of defense lawyers, including Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard scholar; Gerald Lefcourt, the go-to guy for New Yawkers in trouble; Roy Black, the Miami legal magician; and Kenneth W. Starr, whose squeamishness evidently has limits. The team got busy digging up dirt on the victims and their parents, as well as police and prosecutors, according to sources on the receiving end of this harassment. I’m not normally a person who wonders how defense lawyers sleep at night, but … yeesh.

When the wheelbarrow was full, Dershowitz (an acknowledged visitor to the Epstein home, which — according to former employees — was decorated with child pornography) traveled to Palm Beach and dumped it in the prosecutor’s lap. Then when the FBI picked up the investigation and began following the trail of alleged abuse to Epstein’s other homes in New York, New Mexico, the Virgin Islands and beyond, Epstein’s team put similar pressure on the ambitious young U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Alexander Acosta.

As Brown shows in painful detail, the scorched-earth defense was so effective, Acosta ultimately struck a deal to end the state and federal investigations and shield Epstein from future prosecution for the alleged crimes. It’s not clear exactly what pressure the defense brought to bear. Together, the malleable prosecutors and the defense team kept news of their agreement from the alleged victims, thus preventing them from bringing their stories to the attention of the sentencing judge.

Acosta, who is now the secretary of labor, blamed this scandalous conclusion on “defense counsel” who “investigated individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes.” During an interview with The Washington Post last year, Dershowitz boastfully demurred. “We outlawyered him,” he said.

This much the Herald documented to a revolting fare-thee-well. Left unresolved is whether Epstein’s extensive array of powerful friends may have helped him out, too. In the same “little black book” where he kept the names of underage girls around the world available for “massage,” Epstein also had contact information for Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Prince Andrew, assorted Kennedys and so on.

On Tuesday, Epstein settled a long-delayed civil suit just as jury selection was set to begin. It would have been a chance, finally, for some of Epstein’s accusers to be heard in a courtroom. Instead, their official silencing will continue.

Silent, too, is Trump, who once claimed a 15-year acquaintance with Epstein, whom he described as “a lot of fun.” Trump noted Epstein’s interest in women “on the younger side.”

And Clinton is uncharacteristically mute, though he used to spend so much time on Epstein’s private jet — dubbed “the Lolita Express” by tabloid wits — that, if it were an airline, he’d have platinum status.

That one of these men occupies the White House, while the other is touring North America on a high-dollar speaking tour with his forgive-anything wife, is all the proof we can stand of the demoralization of a generation of Americans. Two of our past four presidents have been chummy with a registered sex offender. It makes you wonder: What is this country doing unto itself, and when will we stop doing it?

David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist. He is the author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”

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